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 still, it’s a weeknight. So Jesse Hughes floors the gas pedal of his white Toyota Scion with 190,000 miles on it and heads for the lower desert of Southern California. Palm Desert, actually. The town of just under 50,000 where he grew up after his mother moved him from South Carolina following the divorce. The place where he met music prodigy Josh Homme in high school, and the place that would ultimately set him on a path to rock stardom—or the modern approximation of it at least.
As he manipulates the wheel, he lights a cigarette and scrolls through his iPhone for Prince, or James Brown, or whatever artist he needs to emphasize the point he’s making at that very 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 his band’s first performance at the Coachella Valley Music Festival, a few miles away, comes up. It was there that Eagles of Death Metal played in front of all the people who were assholes to Hughes in 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*CK 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 industry career the envy of 99 percent of the bands out there. Four albums, including the one he’s working on out here; catchy tunes that lace commercials for beer, Microsoft platforms and Nike; and international tours opening for megawatt bands. Eagles of Death Metal have been lavishly praised by the Foo Fighters and kicked off a 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, a best friend who just happens to be both the frontman of Queens of the Stone Age and his music industry swami. That chip on his shoulder is layered with a curious intellect, a biting wit and an almost scientific approach to rock ’n’ roll success: 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,” Hughes says. “I’m not trying to give people a good time because, f*ck 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*ck everybody in the room. Which one would you like to be?’ So I’m trying to f*ck everybody in the room. I’m trying to get everybody some exercise.”
The band’s music is familiar and compulsively listenable. The sound is spare: tight snare, methodical kick drum, wailing guitar, grinding bass … rinse and repeat. 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: pure and simple and unapologetic, and transmitted viscerally by the Fu-Manchu’ed, tight- jeans-and-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’ apartment: the back one in a duplex in a quiet area of the Silver Lake neighborhood in Los Angeles. The garage door is painted white, and a section is splintered pretty badly from all the knife-throwing action. Hughes calls this place a “House for Wayward Rockers,” in which late nights are inevitable and drama is part of the story line. Just this past weekend, his girlfriend, former adult film star Tuesday Cross, had to regulate on a wild drunk woman who began accosting her.
“It was awesome!” says Hughes. “Righteous, bro! She was one of those chicks … I could already see it. Her nose busting was a foregone conclusion.”
Behind a screen door and inside a room painted in hues of red and black is a jumble of kitsch and art and books. 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 two pairs of old-school, gunpowder-loading pistols—a pair for him, a pair for Cross—modeled after the guns used by Wild Bill Hickok and confederate General Robert E. Lee.
There’s a Nazi armband hanging on a wall, and Hughes is sure that Hitler must’ve worn it at one point because he’s got the documentation to prove that it was signed for by his valet. It’s framed on a bed of stars. So … why? “Because we kicked their ass,” he shrugs. “We get to flaunt their shit now.” The guy who got him that, a rich collector of curiosities in Canada, also gave him the shrunken head. “He wanted to use one of our songs in commercials and he asked what it would take to get us to do that. I said, ‘a little head,’ ” says Hughes.
He delivers the punchline deadpan and quickly moves on to the next anecdote. A conversation with Hughes is a full-on assault of pop-culture punditry, side-splitting observations and heavy, sustained doses of right-wing political philosophy. It appears the shy, picked-on kid he was in high school finally got lungs to speak and to proclaim and to sing.
“I honestly expected to be a U.S. senator by now,” he says. He’s convinced he’d be the right antidote for America’s directionless conservative movement. Hughes doesn’t think 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.
“I’ve basically taken it for myself to become the ultimate right-wing extremist, dude,” Hughes says. “And it’s paid off because it’s true and I say what I believe and I never advocate anything wrong. And it’s impossible to accuse me of anything like racism. Because I’ve spent so much time being cool first, that’ll protect me for a while.” He pauses. “For a little while.”
If he gets that far, he might present one hell of a conundrum: An articulate pro-religion, anti-climate-change theorist with pro-gun views who makes music people dance to and sneaker companies use in their global ad campaigns.
But that’s the future. At the moment, Hughes is working on the first EODM album in more than five years. He’s already written the songs. He wrote them in 2012 but was waiting for the right moment to put them to tracks.
“The timing’s got to be right. 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 to wait outside. I’m really looking at tomorrow.”
Hughes married young; his divorce was messy and 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 he had recorded 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,” Hughes says. “It’s not a problem if you’re stealing, 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 figure I’m improving my odds.”
But in the early aughts, he was entering an industry that was already undergoing a tectonic shift in consumption and distribution habits, with the paranoia rampant in the music industry only amplified by that change. Trying to embody the ultimate rock ’n’ roll avatar wasn’t going to be enough.
Guided by the self-empowerment books of Robert Greene, a favorite of rap impresarios like Jay-Z, Hughes’ approach was methodical. But it was his penchant for provocation that urged him into the limelight. After EODM’s second album, 2006’s Death By Sexy, the band was invited on tour with Guns N’ Roses. The first night in Cleveland would go down in rock infamy. After their set, Rose came on 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 realized, had Adolf Hitler written me a letter saying I sucked, I’d hang it up— and I knew that I wanted Axl Rose to hate me,” he says now. “I knew I needed it. It guaranteed to everyone that I was an awesome guy.”
Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl, already a friend of Homme and Hughes, rallied to the band’s side publicly. Two years on, EODM released Heart On. Its hip-shaking single, “Wannabe in L.A.” might be the closest the band has had to a global hit. After all, it made it onto Guitar Hero 5. But to Hughes, success is defined by EODM-dominated airwaves, sold-out arena shows, and more and more exposure. That’s why ads like Nike’s “Winner Stays”—which currently has more than 90 million YouTube views and a host of comments asking about the song in the background—are so important. (The answer: Eagles of Death Metal’s “Miss Alissa.”)
“In the mind of the average radio executive, 10 million [views] is still a platinum album,” he says. “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 shit is gonna change their life.”
The early summer sun is beginning to make lizards sweat and the temperature climbs to near 100°F, when Hughes joins his friend and guitarist Dave Catching at the Rancho de la Luna recording studio. Actually, he’s not there yet. He’s late.
“He’s a f*cking 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 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 percent on stage to encourage that. He is the best front guy I’ve ever seen.”
Hughes rolls up in the Scion with Cross. Now an artist and musician, she has been together with Hughes for five years. She’s the quiet counter to Hughes’ electric presence. “Tuesday’s the great insanity of my life,” he says. The Wild Bill Hickok pistols were his gift to her.
Hughes greets Catching and the two mess around with a tomahawk he’s brought over before ducking inside. In a room covered in thrift-store trinkets, skeleton dolls and many, many guitars and cheesy paintings, Hughes hooks his iPhone up to the mixing console and plays some songs from the upcoming album. He hid them from prying eyes in a folder called “Tony Robbins,” after the motivational speaker: “Because who’s going to want to check out Tony Robbins?”
The tracks are complete sans vocals. One recalls Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl,” another sounds like growling New Orleans swamp rock. Hughes softly sings a few of the refrains as he stands next to the console moving his legs and smoking, the rooster in this room as well.
The comedian Andrew Dice Clay had a movie persona named Ford Fairlane, rock ’n’ roll detective. In 1990, Hughes saw the film and was forever influenced by his swagger. “I took the rule that people only know what you tell them, and I took it very seriously,” he says. Hughes’ 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 a decade earlier, with a shot at raging in rock’s pantheon with the likes of Freddie Mercury or David Bowie. Why is he here when the genre is fading away and dying? 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.” In the background, the strains of Stevie Wonder’s “I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)” play. He pauses, the preacher continuing the sermon most dear to him: “You have to be killing rock and raping 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.”