IT’S PAST 11 P.M. IN THE HIGH DESERT, which is why Pappy And Harriet’s is closed. Strange, because the bar and restaurant is also a gig venue, but it’s a week night, so Jesse Hughes floors the gas pedal of his white Toyota Scion with 190,000 miles on the clock and heads south in the direction of his hometown. Hughes is the 42-year-old lead singer of and brains behind American rock band Eagles Of Death Metal. He is driving towards Palm Desert, a small city in the Coachella Valley with a population of just under 50,000. This is where he spent much of his childhood after relocating with his mother from South Carolina at the age of seven following his parents’ divorce. It’s also where, in high school, he met rock prodigy Josh Homme and the place that would ultimately set him on a path to rock stardom – or a pastiched approximation of it, at least.
As he manipulates the steering wheel, he lights a cigarette and scrolls through his iPhone for Prince, or James Brown, or whatever artist he needs to emphasise the point he’s making at that moment. The car makes herky-jerky movements as he navigates it at mildly alarming speeds down the twisty part of State Route 62, from Joshua Tree into the Low Desert.
The subject of the Eagles Of Death Metal’s first performance at the Coachella Valley Music Festival, a few miles away, comes up. It was there he played in front of all the people who bullied him at high school. “I didn’t know whether to be gracious or be a dick,” he says. “I ended up being gracious. Danny DeVito introduced us on stage and it was like, ‘F–k all of y’all.’”
The chip on his shoulder is an important one. It’s rescued him from a nasty divorce and a job in video-store management, and led to a music career which most artists would kill for. He’s crafted four albums that feature catchy tunes that have provided a soundtrack to commercials hawking everything from beer to software programmes and sportswear, and providing reliable warm-up for stadium rock bands. Eagles of Death Metal have been lavishly praised by the Foo Fighters and thrown off a Guns N’ Roses tour by Axl Rose on the first night, an episode Hughes commemorated with a new tattoo.
He came to rock prominence with the help of Homme, who happens to be both the frontman of the Queens Of the Stone Age and his best friend in the music industry. That chip on his shoulder comes with controversial views, an offensive sense of humour and, fortunately for his music career, an almost scientific approach to forming a rock ’n’ roll band: write good songs, never let them know your true self and “kill rock and rape roll” at every waking moment.
“I’m trying to do anything for people to have a good time with me,” says Hughes. “I’m not trying to give people a good time because, forget that, I’m having a good time. You want to have a good time with me? Let’s do this. My dad had a quote: ‘There’s a rock ’n’ roll band that jacks off for everyone in the room to see. And there’s a rock ’n’ roll band that tries to f–k everybody in the room. Which one would you like to be?’ So I’m trying to f–k everybody in the room.”
The band’s music is compulsively listenable. The sound is sparse: wailing guitars over a grinding bass line and a tight snare and bass drum beat. The lyrics are clever and soaked in Hollywood heartbreak and nights out in pursuit of the holy trinity, of which one is sex. It’s music to dance to, music to lose yourself to. It’s pop rock, transmitted viscerally by the suspenders-wearing man in the driver’s seat of the Scion.
“The Beatles defined pop music,” he says. “It’s our obligation to make it better. That’s what I’m trying to do, baby. I didn’t want any music that put up a velvet rope in any way. I didn’t want any snobbery.”
Flash back to 10 hours earlier in Hughes’s apartment, a small duplex in a quiet part of Los Angeles’ Silver Lake neighbourhood. The garage door is painted white, a large section of which is badly splintered, apparently due to “knife-throwing action”.Hughes calls this place a “House for Wayward Rockers”, in which late nights are inevitable and drama is never far away. The previous weekend, his girlfriend, former porn actress-turned artist Tuesday Cross, had to
lay down the law to a wild drunk woman.
“It was awesome!” says Hughes. “Righteous, bro! She was one of those chicks – I could see it coming. Her nose busting was a foregone conclusion.”
Behind a screen door and inside a room painted red and black is a jumble of art, books and kitsch paraphernalia. On the tattered couch there’s a beaded skull pillow given to him by Jay Leno, and a shrunken head sits unassumingly on a shelf. Another shelf holds a Mak-90 assault rifle and a pair of old-school gun-powder loading pistols – a pair for him, a pair for Tuesday – modelled on the kind of guns used by Old West folk hero Wild Bill Hickok and the Confederate General Robert E Lee.
In a large frame hanging on the wall is a Nazi armband which Hughes is convinced was worn by Hitler at one point because he’s got the official documentation to prove it was signed for by his valet. So, why does Hughes have a memento from a fascist genocidal regime on his wall? “Because we kicked their ass,” he shrugs. “We get to flaunt their stuff now.” The armband came from a wealthy collector of curiosities in Canada, who also gave him the shrunken head. “He wanted to use one of our songs in commercials and wanted to know much we’d want. I just said, ‘A little head,’” says Hughes.
He delivers the punchline deadpan before quickly moving on to the next anecdote. A conversation with Hughes is a full-on assault of pop culture punditry, peppered with controversial opinions and with heavy, sustained doses of right-wing politics. It appears the shy, picked-on kid he was in high school finally got the lungs to air his views – and to sing in a rock band.
“I honestly expected to be a US Senator by now,” he says. Hughes is also convinced that he could be the right antidote for America’s somewhat directionless conservative movement of recent years. He doesn’t think that Barack Obama would be around had he been behind the scenes in the Republican political machine – though truth be told, it’s hard to imagine Hughes working behind the scenes of anything.
There’s no doubting that Hughes is much better at fronting a band than talking about politics. At the moment, he’s working on the first Eagles Of Death Metal album in more than five years. He wrote most of the lyrics in 2012, but has been waiting for the right moment to put them to tracks.
“The timing’s got to be right,” explains Hughes. “When we do a tour, if I know I can sell out a 1,000-seater, I’ll book the 500-seater because it looks better to have a bunch of people waiting outside. I’m really looking at tomorrow.”
Hughes married young, and a messy divorce left him heartbroken and heading down a dangerous path of booze and drugs. It was at his lowest point that Homme visited him and took an interest in a few songs that Hughes had been recording on his computer. “Do you have any more of these?” he asked.
“I wrote the whole first record based on advice from Barry Manilow, which was: every song is a commercial pop song.” says Hughes. “It’s not a problem if you’re stealing something, as long as you’re honest about it. I didn’t steal from people that sucked. Every song has already been written in my opinion, so why make it hard? I’m not going to try to be like Poison, I’ll try to be like the Stones. At least I’m improving my odds of success.”
In the early Noughties, Hughes was starting out in an industry that was already undergoing a tectonic shift in consumption habits, with the paranoia rampant in the music industry only amplified by that change. Trying to embody the ultimate rock ’n’ roll avatar was never going to be enough.
Guided by the self-empowerment books of Robert Greene, a favourite of rap impresarios like Jay-Z, Hughes’s approach was methodical. But it was his penchant for provocation that urged him into the limelight. After the release of Eagles Of Death Metal’s second album, Death By Sexy, in 2006, the band was invited on tour with Guns N’ Roses. The first night in Cleveland, Ohio, went down in rock infamy. After the band finished their set, Rose took to the stage and asked the crowd what they thought of the “Pigeons of Shit Metal” and then said they’d been kicked off the tour.
“I had a moment of panic, but then I realised I wanted Axl Rose to hate me,” he says. “I knew I needed it. It guaranteed that I was an awesome guy.”
Foo Fighters’ frontman Dave Grohl, already a friend of Homme and Hughes, rallied behind the band. Two years later, Eagles Of Death Metal released Heart On with a hip-shaking lead single, I Wannabe in LA, which might be the closest thing the band have to a global hit. The song was featured in Guitar Hero 5. But to Hughes, success is defined by Eagles Of Death Metal-dominated airwaves, sold-out shows and more and more exposure. That’s why the Nike ad soundtracked
by an Eagles song, with over 70 million YouTube views and many comments asking about the song, is so important.
“In the mind of the average radio executive, 10 million views is still a platinum album,” says Hughes. “Even though the facade of it is exposed. But when they see 71 million, it’s able to impress them to seven platinum albums. This s–t is gonna change their life.”
The mercury has hit 37°C in the California High Desert. Hughes is supposed to be at the Rancho de la Luna recording studio near Joshua Tree, where he’s arranged to meet his friend and guitarist Davey Catching. But he’s late.
“He’s a f–king genius, but he’s on his own time,” says the world-weary Catching, a rock veteran and owner of the Rancho, a house and studio of ramshackle charm on 30 acres of empty desert. Catching’s beard makes him look a bit like Santa as a ZZ Top roadie. He’s played with Eagles Of Death Metal for all but two tours.
“Our audiences are half and half, girls and boys,” he says. “A lot of my other bands, there’s lots of boys out there, who weren’t dancing, and it wasn’t as fun. Jesse does 100,000 per cent on stage to encourage that. He is the best front guy I’ve ever seen.”
Hughes and his girlfriend roll up in the Scion a while later. They’ve been together for five years. She’s the quiet counter to Hughes’s craziness. “Tuesday’s the great insanity of my life,” he says. Hughes greets Catching and the two mess around with a tomahawk axe before heading inside. In a room covered in thrift store trinkets, skeleton dolls, cheesy paintings and many, many guitars. Hughes hooks his iPhone up to the mixing console and plays songs from the forthcoming album. He hid them from prying eyes in a folder called Tony Robbins, named after the motivational speaker: “Because who’s going to want to check out Tony Robbins?”
The tracks are complete, but Hughes still needs to record his vocals. One is reminiscent of Gwen Stefani’s Hollaback Girl, another sounds like growling swamp rock. Hughes softly sings a few of the refrains as he stands next to the console moving his legs and smoking.
In 1990, Hughes saw a movie that would influence his rock ’n’ roll persona. Controversial comedian Andrew Dice Clay plays the title character in The Adventures Of Ford Fairlane, a self-proclaimed ‘Mr Rock ’n’ Roll Detective’ who crudely stumbles from case to case, picking up women and generally being obnoxious along the way, a similarity which isn’t lost on Hughes. “I took the rule that people only know what you tell them, and I took it very seriously,” he says. Hughes’s image is an unironic homage to the past: a little bit Joan Jett, a little bit rockabilly.
But the appreciation behind it all is earnest. In some ways, it’s sad that Hughes wasn’t born earlier, during a time more suited to his rock ’n’ roll bravado. Instead, he is here in the middle of the desert. But, of course, Hughes has an answer for that too.
“It just seems that the gods of rock have invested in me to keep the flame burning,” he says. “That’s OK, that’s why I’m on fire.” The strains of Stevie Wonder’s I Believe (When I Fall in Love) can be heard in the background. He pauses before getting to the point most dear to him: “You have to be killing rock and screwing roll. You have to be really horny. You have to really believe in it. I believe in it. I believe that heroes are important… I believe in dancing.”