Dean Fertita epitomises cool. He dresses in rock n’ roll style black, denim, and dons a messy wad of longish, ebony hair that implies he’s been on earth less than his 43 years. The musician is the keyboardist and guitarist for the reigning anti-heroes of stoner rock, Queens Of The Stone Age, who are currently touring America with Nine Inch Nails (NIN). But Fertita’s daily existence prior to reaching this level of momentum was not so insatiably appealing. After completing a sound check in Columbia, South Carolina in preparation for the night’s performance, he opens up about life prior to the band’s success.
“I lived out of a van, and I’ve slept on couches most of my life,” he laughs.
“I was doing that forever. As a matter of fact, I was probably bordering on getting to that age where I should have been looking for something more serious, looking at a different career. But I’ve just been very fortunate. I’ve been around a lot of really great musicians and had a lot of opportunities to play and learn from people that I respect immensely,” he continues.
Fertita did not expect success as measured by any popularly agreed upon barometer, like recognition, money, international tours, or sold-out shows – especially considering that his reality was earning coin by slogging it out as a clerk in an independent record store in Detroit, Michigan in the 1990s.
“Nobody fucking made it until The White Stripes did, you know. Then people realised, like, oh my god, I guess it’s possible here in our town. That can happen, you know? So that’s just been ingrained with me since I was young.”
However, hard times in the Detroit music scene have been romanticised by one notable pop culture figure.
“Well yeah, I mean Eminem is incredible and he did phenomenal things coming from Detroit, but you know, in our rock and roll world, nobody got out of the bar scene – ever.”
Fertita concedes that it would be “impossible” for him to ever depart that scene entirely.
“I still hang out with all of those guys that I’ve played music with in my 20s, people that I picked up a guitar with for the first time when I was 13. Nothing changes. I don’t think people change that much. You are who you are.”
While the guitarist will always be drawn to his humble roots, Fertita and his band have been lucky enough to grace stages around the world – most recently, their performance at the world’s most prestigious music ceremony.
It’s ironic that during the sound check for their performance at The Grammys, the raising of the curtain knocked all the microphones off the amplifiers, cutting off their sound as a result.
“Good thing we did a run through, that would have been embarrassing,” Fertita laughs, a little oddly, considering the group’s rendition of their single ‘My God Is The Sun’, featuring Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl, NIN frontman Trent Reznor, and Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham, was prematurely cut off by the producers during the broadcast.
Corporate sponsor messages and closing credits rolled at the climax of the deliciously eclectic rendition, preventing viewers from enjoying the dynamic finale. The incident provoked the easily-bruised Reznor to tweet, “Music’s biggest night…to be disrespected. A heartfelt FUCK YOU guys.”
Fertita is uncomfortable with the task of damage control. Understandably, he is cautious, and selects his words carefully, pausing significantly before discussing the event.
“(The Grammys) was…different than I thought it was going to be. We’ve kind of run the full circle of emotions over what it was and what it is, and in the end we’re all really proud of what we did. Getting the chance to play at The Grammys for a band that feels like we’re crashing the party a little bit, it was cool. It is what it is. We’ve come to a place where we can look at it and it was a really good experience, so we’re glad we did it.”
Musically, the bands seem to deviate wildly from one another. NIN and its burly king Reznor are viewed as luminaries in industrial rock and electronic metal, skimming a variety of experimental genres in their 25-year history. The Queens boys are regarded as the modern antithesis to ‘popular’ rock.
Both bands released albums in 2013, each serving as relics of their respective frontmans’ journeys from depressive spirals to the solace of family life. NIN’s Hesitation Marks is a literal reference to the physical wounds left by a suicide attempt. Queens’ Like Clockwork was created after Josh Homme suffered a knee injury that saw him bedridden for months, an experience that led to a ‘dark time’. Their genre formulas may differ, yet both releases are a combination of insidious, psychedelic, crooning menace, and irresistible, sexy guitar hooks.
Fertita is nonplussed when it comes to any objections to the tour. He acknowledges their kinship and suggests the tour is a window to create something ‘new’.
“I think that’s part of it, but the ‘obvious match’ thing to us, I don’t think we view it in the same way. We have this always constantly expanding group of friends that happen to be musicians, and bands that we like. And if the bands have mutual respect and like for each other, then I think it gives you an opportunity to do something that people haven’t seen before. At a festival, there’s 20 bands that play every day, and not all of them fit together.”
The tour hits Australia in early March. Homme, whose Australian wife Brody Dalle will be opening the tour Down Under, profiled in the January issue of Rolling Stone just how much he loves his wife’s country. Fertita doesn’t need prompting either and swiftly offers his excitement, confirming their visit for early March without a hint of reluctance.
“We’re all looking forward to it. We’re constantly looking at our calendar going, how much longer until we go to Australia?”