This isn't quite the way Dean Fertita imagined making it to rock 'n' roll's big time. But the Royal Oak native isn't complaining.
After fronting the Detroit band the Waxwings for eight years or so, Fertita is making a name for himself as a highly valued sideman/utility player in a somewhat higher echelon. In 2006 he hit the road with the Raconteurs, the all-star outfit formed in Detroit by his friend (and Waxwings collaborator) Brendan Benson and the White Stripes' Jack White.
That, in turn, led to Fertita's current job, playing keyboards and guitars with the California-based hard rock group Queens of the Stone age.
But even though they're not necessarily [i]his[/i] bands, Fertita doesn't feel like a run-of-the-mill employee, either.
"I still don't consider myself, like, a hired-gun, even though that's kind of the job description," explains Fertita, 37, who still keeps an apartment with his girlfriend in Royal Oak, but has far spent more time in tour buses recently. "This doesn't feel like going into situations where I'm not satisfied.
"I consider these my favorite bands going, and my favorite musicians. To be able to play with them...I didn't really think about it like taking a step back and doing something different. It's just getting to play with musicians I love."
And the feeling is mutual, according to Queens founder and frontman Josh Homme, who's used more than two dozen musicians on the group's albums and tours during the past 10 years.
"It's so hard to find people to play with -- and try to get along with, too," Homme notes. "When you can communicate with someone about music, it's such a relief, and I can do that with Dean as well as anyone I've ever played with -- and better than most.
"We were looking for someone to wear many hats and be able to fit in without losing who they were and their own style. That's kind of a tall order, but Dean's more than filled it."
It was Fertita's Raconteurs tenure that led directly into the Queens gig. Queens' sound mixer, Patrick "Hutch" Hutchinson, toured with the Raconteurs while Homme and company were making the group's latest album, "Era Vulgaris." When Homme began looking for some new musicians to tour with the group, he says Hutchinson "said I know the guy, and kind of stamped Dean. When you're Hutch-endorsed, I'm all ears and arms open, and I was ready.
"So I didn't look for anyone else, and sure enough Hutch was right."
Already a Queens fan -- particularly of the 2000 album "Rated R," which came out while he was working as a clerk at Off the Record in Royal Oak -- Fertita flew out to California to meet with Homme earlier this year, feeling a bit of trepidation.
"I've been playing with close friends for so long that going into a situation where I didn't really know anyway right away, I was wondering how it would go," Fertita says. How he and Homme bonded was not surprising, however.
"We just started talking music right away," Fertita recalls. "I met him at his recording studio, Pink Duck, where he's got a lot of cool amps and stuff he's collected. The first thing he said to me was, 'How would you feel about going out to the desert for a couple days and doing some recording.'
"I liked that, getting right into the fire. We went out and did some B-sides for the singles from ('Era Vulgaris') and it was great."
Fertita became a music junkie while growing up in Royal Oak. He began playing piano at age six but switched to guitar as a teenager. "One day a friend of mine came over with a guitar and he knew how to play (AC/DC's) 'Back in Black,' " Fertita remembers. "After that, I had to get a guitar. There was no turning back."
He considers the Waxwings, which formed during the late '90s, shortly after he began writing songs, as his first "real" band. The group released three albums and had one, "Fragile Girl," covered by the White Stripes. The Waxwings also backed Brendan Benson at live shows to promote his 2005 album "The Alternative to Love."
Despite lots of favorable press, however, the group never made a substantial impact outside of the city, though Fertita has nothing but good things to say about the experience.
"I had great times with my friends, making music and touring, so I can't really complain about it at all," he explains. "We played 'cause we loved playing.
"Obviously it would be nice to feel like it succeeded a little bit more, but if you put too much emphasis on how many people are liking what you're doing or (are) paying attention to you, I don't know if you're doing it for the right reasons."
Fertita says the Waxwings aren't necessarily done, though they're certainly inactive -- which is a good thing, because as far as the Queens' Homme is concerned, "Dean is basically shackled to the bus right now."
"Right now Queens is better live than we've ever been," notes Homme, which has him fired up to get the group back into the studio sooner rather than later. "With this lineup it feels like we could basically blow through a whole record quick."
Fertita is up for that, although he's also in the midst of making his own album -- which he says "isn't terribly different from Waxwings stuff" -- and also hopes he "can still live a double life" when the Raconteurs return to the road in 2008. Mostly, however, he's happy with his present and is ready to embrace whatever the future brings.
"I haven't unpacked a suitcase in about four years," Fertita says with a laugh. "It's starting to get to me -- a little bit. But, y'know, I wanted to play music, and this is the life that comes with it. I can't be anything but happy with the way it's working out."
Queens of the Stone Age, Black Angels and Biffy Clyro perform at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday (Oct. 23) at the Fillmore Detroit, 2115 Woodward Ave., Detroit. Tickets are $35 and $27. Call (313) 961-5450 or visit www.livenation.com.
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