Ten years ago, when he was all of 21, Michael Shuman stared down one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities most musicians only dream about. The Los Angeles native, who had performed in local bands such as Mini Mansions and Wires On Fire, was a die-hard Queens Of The Stone Age fan, and now he was being asked to join. “It was an incredible situation, and I was definitely nervous at first,” he recalls. “I felt confident about my playing ability, but what really got to me was that I loved the guys so much. I was a true fan—I had driven hours to go see them. It had nothing to do with my skills. I knew I could play.”
QOTSA had already gone through a few bass players since their 1996 inception. First there was Nick Oliveri, who had rejoined his onetime Kyuss bandmate Josh Homme with Queens, before a confluence of disputes led to his departure in 2004. Dan Druff assumed bass duties for just under a year before Eleven member Alain Johannes took over in 2005. When Johannes decided to devote more time to Eleven, he coached his pal Shuman on what to expect with the Queens gang. “Alain helped ease me into it. I needed a pep talk, and he told me how to handle things. The fact that Alain wasn’t in the band for long helped make the transition easier for me, because I could come in and be myself. It was good to have him on my side.”
Shuman—who bears the sporty nickname Mikey Shoes—has been playing music most of his life. Starting on guitar, he fronted pop–punk bands as a pre-teen (“My dad drove me to my first club gigs”) and formed Wires On Fire in high school. One day a light bulb went on, and he made the switch to bass. “I wanted to try something different. I didn’t really care about fronting a band anymore—I just wanted to learn the bass. Not to sound pretentious, but I said to myself, ‘I want to have the most unique style possible.’” To that end, Shuman, inspired by such bassists as David Sims from the Jesus Lizard and Fugazi’s Joe Lally, dug into the work of James Jamerson, who became a major influence. “I bought a Jamerson songbook, and that really opened me up. I’m not a huge chart reader, but I did my best to learn that Motown stuff. Jamerson intrigued me: He could rip balls and shred, but you didn’t really notice it. Even though he played busy parts, you just felt his grooves. That appealed to me, because I wanted to play cool riffs and not just hold down root notes. The trick was to not step on the vocals, but still sound interesting.”
Shuman does precisely that on the new QOTSA album, Villains. It’s the second of the band’s records he’s been a part of (he made his debut on 2013’s … Like Clockwork), and it’s the zippiest thing the group has ever done. An unabashed love letter to early-’80s MTV, the album finds Shuman pumping mightily on new wave-ish art-rockers like “Feet Don’t Fail Me” and “Fortress,” jumpin’ and jivin’ on the Stray Cats meets Adam & the Ants rave-up “The Way You Used to Do,” and even sneaking in some Jamerson-like lines on “Un-Reborn Again,” a track that Cuisinarts Bowie, the Cars, and Depeche Mode into one transfixing brew. “I love those records from the ’80s—Bowie, the Cars, all that stuff. They’re very tight and clean. Bass-wise, we started to think along those lines on … Like Clockwork, for a classic sort of sound but with a modern hue. It’s cool to change the vibe around but still sound like us.”
You’ve been in the band for ten years now. How has your bass playing changed?
I’ve gone from being a kind of wiry player to a more-rounded one. Coming more from punk, I was the guy who cut through everything. My style is now about holding down the low end and forming that rhythm backbone. I always try to be melodic and do cool stuff, but I know I have an important job to do in terms of keeping that bottom thing going.
Did Josh ever say why he chose you over other bass players?
Not really. There were other factors that were more important than my playing. When Nick left and Alain joined the band, it was one sort of energy—they were amazing—but I brought in my own thing. Josh had come to see me play in Wires On Fire, and I think he just liked what I was doing. I’m not trying to take all the credit here, but if you saw the band before and you watch us now, it’s a different energy onstage—the way we interact, the way we move. So I think that was important to him.
In Queens, you’ve played with a couple of drummers—Joey Castillo and now Jon Theodore. How are their styles different?
One of the biggest things for me is building that bass– drummer bond. I loved playing with Joey; he’s just a powerhouse. Like me, he comes from punk rock, so we bonded on that. He was like my big brother. With Jon, we’ve developed something more groove-based. To me, he’s the best drummer in the world, because he can do anything. On this record, it was like, “Let’s try whatever,” and he could do it. He can go from punk rock to something more groove-oriented.
Another thing is, on my first tour cycle with the band, with Joey, I was playing all these songs I loved, but they weren’t mine. On these last two records I got to write my own bass parts, so obviously that’s a little more comfortable and rewarding.
Having three guitarists is quite a wall of sound you have to blast through. Does that impact your bass parts?
[Laughs.] Yeah, it’s funny. When I joined the band, I came into rehearsal with a pedalboard that had all kinds of shit on it. I quickly learned that wasn’t going to work with three guitar players. I needed to adopt more of a traditional role as a bass player.
Making this album has allowed me to do my thing and be free in terms of the parts I’m playing, but even so, I have to pay close attention to what’s going on tonally. I always try to stay out of the way of certain frequencies that are already covered by the guitars. We worked on that a lot on this record; the bass has to inhabit its own home and not get in the way of the guitars. On “The Way You Used to Do,” there are moments when three guitars are going non-stop. So I have to choose the right sound and cover the lower frequency. But there are times when I might double a guitar riff. Whenever I do that, I have to be very careful about my sound—I don’t want to get lost. There’s an art to holding down the bottom and picking those moments to get a little busy.
The bass sound on that song, and on “Head Like a Haunted House,” is very tight. Are you going direct?
We always sync DI, but most of the sound is a two-amp setup that we’ve summed into one. One amp is a Guild Maverick combo, and then there’s a late-’60s 300-watt Orange head. It’s a massive beast, that one. I also use a Fender Super Bassman. I like taking clean and dirty tones and mushing them together.
Your sound on “Domesticated Animals” is massive and full of air. Are you using something different there?
On that one and “The Evil Has Landed,” I’m using a Dirt Transmitter by Earthquaker Devices. I’m not much of a pedals guy anymore, but we use that on the bass a lot. It has this bias knob that does a natural gate. It provides a weird tightness, but also gives that bit of air you’re talking about.
Is there anything you’d like to improve about your playing?
That’s a good question. I’m not going to say slapping, and I don’t want to learn about any more than four strings. I would love to be a better finger player. I usually play with the one finger, like Jamerson. It would be great to be able to use all my right-hand fingers however I wanted to. That would be a nice tool to have in the bag.
Queens Of The Stone Age, Villains [2017, Matador], … Like Clockwork [2013, Matador/Rekords]
Basses 1967 Fender Mustang, Gretsch White Falcon, fretless Fender Jazz Bass, 1968 Gibson EB-2, 1967 Fender Coronado, Gretsch Billy-Bo
Amps Guild Maverick, Orange OB1-300, Fender Super Bassman, Fender 410 Rumble cabinet
Effects Morley Wah, Earthquaker Devices Dirt Transmitter, ZVex Woolly Mammoth