Queens of the Stone Age began with Josh Homme in 1996. After the breakup of Kyuss in 1995, Homme had briefly joined Screaming Trees as a touring guitarist, before deciding to form a new band of his own. Originally naming his new project ‘Gamma Ray’, Homme changed the name in 1997, as German power metal band Gamma Ray, who have been around since 1989, was threatening to sue:
When we were making a record in 1992, under the band Kyuss, our producer Chris Goss, he would joke and say “You guys are like the queens of the stone age.” The band was originally called Gamma Ray, but we got threatened with a lawsuit because someone else had it. So we were Queens of the Stone Age.
On why the band chose the name 'Queens of the Stone Age’:
Kings would be too macho. The Kings of the Stone Age wear armor and have axes and wrestle. The Queens of the Stone Age hang out with the Kings of the Stone Age’s girlfriends when they wrestle, and also it was a name given to us by Chris Goss. He gave us the name Queens of the Stone Age. Rock should be heavy enough for the boys and sweet enough for the girls. That way everyone’s happy and it’s more of a party. Kings of the Stone Age is too lopsided.
The band’s first release was Gamma Ray, a two-track EP featuring the songs “Born to Hula” and “If Only Everything” (which would later appear on their self-titled debut as 'If Only’), released in January 1996, featured Joshua Homme (Kyuss), Matt Cameron (Soundgarden and Pearl Jam), Van Conner (Screaming Trees) with Victor Indrizzo providing additional percussion. The band’s first live appearance was on November 20, 1997, at OK Hotel in Seattle, Washington, with Mike Johnson of Dinosaur Jr. on bass and John McBain of Monster Magnet on second guitar. In December of the same year, the band released a split EP, Kyuss/Queens of the Stone Age, which was the first official release by the band under the name Queens of the Stone Age, and featured three tracks from the Gamma Ray sessions as well as three Kyuss tracks recorded in 1995 just prior to their break-up.
The band released their self-titled debut, Queens of the Stone Age (1998) on Loose Groove records (the album was also released on vinyl by Man’s Ruin Records), which following a last minute decision to fire several members, was recorded with Homme handling both guitar- and bass guitar-playing duties (though basswork is credited to Homme’s alter-ego, Carlo Von Sexron), Alfredo Hernández on the drums, and several other instrumental and vocal contributions by Chris Goss and Hutch. Homme reportedly asked Screaming Trees’ vocalist Mark Lanegan to appear on the record, but he was unable to due to other commitments. Soon after the recording sessions were finished for the album, former Kyuss bassist Nick Oliveri joined and touring commenced. Consisting entirely of ex-Kyuss members, this is widely regarded as QOTSA’s original lineup. Guitarist Dave Catching joined shortly after. A recording of a phone message which plays the voice of Oliveri stating his decision to join the band can be heard at the end of the album’s final song, “I Was a Teenage Hand Model”. From this point forward, the band’s line-up would change frequently. By the time their second album was being recorded, Hernández was no longer in the band.
The album garnered positive reviews and received a lot more attention than their debut, despite the fact that the lyrics to “Feel Good Hit of the Summer” were deemed by mega-retailer Wal-Mart to promote drug use, almost causing the record to get pulled from store shelves. The success of the record also earned the band notable opening slots with The Smashing Pumpkins, Foo Fighters, Hole, and a place at Ozzfest2000. It was during this time that Homme stated:
There’s a robotic element to our albums, like the repetition of riffs. We also wanted to do a record that had a lot of dynamic range. We wanted to set it up in this band so we could play anything. We don’t want to get roped in by our own music. If anyone has a good song (regardless of style) we should be able to play it.
During the 2001 Rock in Rio show, bassist Nick Oliveri was famously arrested after performing on stage naked, with only his bass guitar covering his dangling genitals. Oliveri apologized to officials, saying that he did not know it was a crime in Brazil.
Following his work on Rated R, former Screaming Trees vocalist Mark Lanegan joined the band as a full-time member, a position he held until early 2005.
Towards the end of the Rated R tour, the band’s performance at the 2001 Rock am Ring festival in Germany was, according to Homme, “the worst show we’ve ever played and it was in front of 40,000 people.”The band decided to tattoo themselves with the starting time of the performance, “Freitag 4:15”. As Oliveri explained:
Me, Mark [Lanegan], Josh [Homme] and Hutch, our soundman, have the same tattoo, it’s from Rock am Ring festival. The time we had to play was 4.15 in the afternoon and it was just a terrible show. It sucked, it was horrible. That’s why I tattooed it on my ribs, where it would hurt, so I’d never forget.
So today…I received very unfortunate news. One of my friends from back home, finally listened to Queens of the Stone Age. He listened to Rated R….and to my complete and utter displeasure….he hated it…It made me very sad. So, in protest I will listen to it more. Because it is THAT FUCKING AWESOME! And if by some off chance he reads this….sorry dude, but I couldn’t disagree more.