The man can't stop dancing. Jesse "The Devil" Hughes is barely a few steps onto his tour bus and he's already on fire again, shaking his tail feathers, and kicking the heels of his shiny new motorcycle boots. He's rocking to a mix tape from his brother, and he's stuck on a track by Dizzee Rascal, the British grime prodigy, whose clipped hip-hop patois is set against a lifted Billy Squire riff: "Fix up, look sharp ... hear the bang, see the spark."
Hughes is the happiest dude on the bus, and he repeats the song over and over and over. And so he shakes it and shakes it some more, a grin stretching out beneath his auburn biker's mustache. "It's cool, man! It just flows...."
Showtime is still hours away at the Gibson Amphitheatre, where Hughes and his Eagles of Death Metal are set to open for The Strokes with the Eagles' own flowing riffs and stupid, sexy rhythms. Their sound is cheap and tawdry, serious and comic, part-'70s riff-rock and baked to anxious perfection deep in the high California desert, with Hughes as ecstatic frontman in extra-tight jeans.
He lights another cigarette when drummer Joshua Homme steps onto the bus. Homme is the bonafide rockstar in the room, the leader and mastermind of Queens of the Stone Age, a man who has known chart action and critical acclaim. And this is how he chooses to spend 2006. He puts an arm around Hughes, who then rubs Homme's chest. It is a beautiful, awkward moment. They are not lovers, but pals since attending high school out in Palm Desert.
Homme quickly notices the stubble on Hughes' face. "Why do you keep not-shaving? You look like that show Survivor Man."
Homme and Hughes will be back in the desert for this year's Coachella Music and Arts Festival, possibly the best festival in the country, and which just happens to be a hometown gig.
Hughes grew up there in the des' to become a pudgy political journalist with a beard, married with a kid and working under the byline J. Everett Hughes, working for the Associated Press, the Gannett News Service and the Desert Sun. The closest he ever came to rock stardom was when he worked as a speechwriter for Sonny Bono.
"I was listening, I was a fan, I always paid attention," says Hughes, now 34. "But when I went to college I wanted nothing more than to be a political journalist. I always had politics in the back of my head."
Homme laughs. "He thinks he can make a difference!"
"I always feel like rock 'n' roll came for me, because I got divorced, lost a bunch of weight, grew a mustache, wrote some songs, then-Boom!"
With Homme's encouragement, Hughes reinvented himself as the ultimate rock 'n' roll ringmaster, fueled on AC/DC and The Rolling Stones and any half-competent band from the '70s forward that discovered at least one immortal riff. And the band's first album, 2004's Peace Love Death Metal, was a source of intense love and hatred. Entertainment Weekly called it the best album of the year, but others were outraged, confused, appalled.
"I can see it in their faces, man," says Hughes now. "You will see it: What the fuck is this?"
Homme laughs. "Like, he will wear jean-shorts that are so short that you can see the pockets. That is very definitive. Some people, that makes them angry. They think he's German or they think he's fucking round. They do get physical anger. But I think it's awesome because he doesn't even pay attention, and he almost rubs it in your face.... This isn't for the dudes."
"It's isn't," Hughes agrees. "It's for chicks. That's why I like telling them that every night. When girls are dancing and having a good time, it's really hard to say that anything sucks."
Homme still has his Queens of the Stone Age, but his attention for the moment is on Eagles and the band's three-album plan, which they discussed even before starting to record the first one. The band's new album, Death By Sexy, was recorded in 14 days, which is about a dozen more days than the debut. The result is another slab of hot breath and burning flesh, as Hughes pants and purrs to sounds lifted from the Stones to The Cramps.
"I knew nothing coming into this, and, quite frankly, not only is he my best friend and the sweetest boy in the whole world, but he's my mentor," Hughes says, looking at Homme. "And he always said we had to have a three-album plan, so plan to write more music-keep writing."
It is true, but Homme isn't comfortable with the "mentor" idea, preferring to see himself as a friend with a few more years experience as a rocker, a veteran sideman who can point out certain obstacles for Hughes without spoiling the journey. It's the kind of relationship he's had with guitarist/producer Chris Goss of Masters of Reality since Homme was an 18-year-old desert-rock wunderkind in the band Kyuss. Homme doesn't write songs for Eagles of Death Metal, but he does help Hughes edit them into shape from the original bedroom demos.
"I love being cupid or being catalyst more than I like doing anything else," Homme says. "It means that I'm at the beginning of a process and then, like some crippled grandpa, I like to watch someone else do their thing with out touching it all the time.
"I shouldn't be bringing in song ideas for this. So he brings in song ideas and we sculpt together, but with any sculpture you don't want to chip away too much."
Hours later, the band is onstage and the room is only half-full, a typical scenario for an opening act, even one that includes a famous rocker behind the drums. But Hughes is in full effect, slashing out the riffs alongside guitarist Dave Catching and his Flying-V. And Homme sits anonymously behind them, pounding beats ragged and pure, with no fills ever.
"I love you so hard," Hughes tells the crowd. "Thank you for coming out here to dance. Let's hear it for the ladies!"
And by the end of the set, the room is nearly full. Some fans seem unsure how to react, but women are dancing to the music. It's that sexy, sacred scene Hughes was aiming for, as he does every night. And when the final moments of the band play out, he knows exactly what to do: He peels off his soaked T-shirt and throws it right into the crowd.