Josh Homme was more than surprised when Queens of the Stone Age's new album, "...Like Clockwork," debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200.
"I'm a bit shocked, actually," he says. "...Like Clockwork," after all, was the group's first new release in six years -- more than enough time for fans to forget about the band. And, Homme notes, it didn't exactly follow the mold of the group's previous releases -- if there even was such a mold to begin with.
"Y'know, we have a long history of challenging our fans to come on a non-repetitive journey with us, and I know sometimes that can be difficult, and it has varying results," he explains. "So we didn't expect that (the album) would do this well. But I would say if you expect anything for music, you expect too much, anyway."
There was, in fact, a point during the interim where Homme wasn't sure he'd be putting out any music ever again.
During 2010, Homme underwent what was supposed to be routine surgery on his knee. He woke up to learn that he had died during the procedure and been resuscitated, but the complications from the operation left him bedridden for four months and in a deep depression that lasted beyond his physical recovery. "I just continued to cycle downhill," recalls Homme, 40, a native of Joshua Tree, Calif., who founded QOTSA in 1997 after leaving the groundbreaking stoner rock group Kyuss.
"I think everyone goes through dark periods. So I'm not complaining. But mine kind of kept going, and it's only music that pulled me out so. So I'm thankful for that old friend that was music."
It was Homme's friends in the band -- guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen, Royal Oak-based guitarist-keyboardist Dean Fertita, bassist Michael Shuman and drummer Joey Castillo -- who encouraged him to get back to work, but he was cautious as well as up-front with them about what he expected the experience to be like. "I had to ask these people to come into the fog with me," Homme explains. "And because of that, when the request is 'I'm lost. Come in here with me,' you really have to trust someone.
"So as a result of that, this (album) was kind of the tightest, bond-wise, we've ever been. Everyone trusts each other. Everyone has each other's back, and I think that solidarity helped to stabilize the more vulnerable moments of the record."
Not quite everyone, however; Homme fired Castillo during the making of the album because the drummer "wasn't up to the heaviness of the situation." But his replacement -- Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl, who's worked with QOTSA before and plays with Homme and Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones in the "supergroup" Them Crooked Vultures -- was certainly no slouch. "I turned to my friend Dave, who has always been there for me and just been nice with me," Homme says of Grohl, who played on half of "...Like Clockwork's" 10 tracks.
Grohl was hardly the only member of QOTSA's extended family on the album, either. The set boasts an impressive guest list -- Elton John, Trent Reznor, Homme's wife and mother of their two children Brody Dalle, Arctic Monkeys' Alex Turner, Scissor Sisters' Jake Shears, Screaming Trees' Mark Lanegan and QOTSA co-founder Nick Oliveri -- which Homme says helped to dissipate "the fog" during the sessions.
"I've got to remember to remind myself there's this marquee value to people who are just friends of mine," Homme says with a chuckle. "Because the record was tough to make, speaking to your friends on the phone, it was like 'Hey, do you want to come over here and take our mind off of something? We'll find something cool to do.'
"So it's a willful distraction from something that wasn't always easy."
Homme says nine inch nails' Reznor, who contributes to the tracks "Kalopsia" and "Fairweather Friends," had already been contributing to his emotional well-being. "As I was going through my own troubles, for some reason I reached out to Trent and he and I would go get coffee and sit and talk for five hours," Homme recalls. "He even said to me, 'I'm a total open book. I'm not gonna hold anything back.
"And I just appreciated that. It's tough to be understood in life, and when you feel like you have a moment with two people who understand each other, you tend to hold onto it" -- so much so that Homme had even wanted Reznor to produce "...Like Clockwork," but it wasn't possible alongside his commitments to nine inch nails' new album "Hesitation Marks."
The album's unexpected guest, meanwhile, was Elton John, a childhood favorite of Homme's -- "He reminds me of floating in the pool in the desert when I was seven" -- who surprised him with a call out of the blue.
"He said (imitating John), 'Josh, it's Elton,' and I said, 'I know.' He said, 'No, it's Elton John' and I said, 'I know.' And literally, as I said 'I know' a text came from my old roommate, and he said, 'Dude, Elton's gonna call you in five minutes.' And I thought, 'God, I really could've used that about 10 minutes ago...'
"And it really took off from there."
Homme adds that besides being blown away to work with John, he was also impressed with the work ethic and musicality the veteran brought to the track "Fairweather Friends."
"He's a workaholic like nobody's business," Home recalls. "He's obsessed with chasing down new music and understanding what's going on. He learned that song in 20 minutes, and there's no way...Nobody just walks in and learns a six-part, nine-change song in 20 minutes...
"His personality is so gigundo that sometimes his piano ability just chills in the shade of a grand personality because it's one part of what makes the whole thing. But that concept, that gestalt concept is kind of our way, too. It's all just a microcosm of the same attitude, perhaps."
"...Like Clockwork" ultimately took QOTSA longer to make than any of its predecessors, though Homme feels it benefited from the extra time. The group recorded 19 songs but chose to put just 10 on the album, feeling that leaner was better in this particular case. "We knew that this was going to be a vocal-driven record, for starters," Homme explains. "And then the next corner piece was that there's going to be no fat at all -- in fact, you should cut meat away, you should sacrifice pieces of the meat in order to condense it. And then you start fitting the pieces together and come up with what works best."
"...Like Clockwork," he adds, is also "geared more to be played live," which is what QOTSA will be doing the rest of this year and into 2014, including its current North American tour and a return to Europe in November. But while fans have clearly been happy to have QOTSA back in active duty, Homme says he's taking the reception with a grain of self-deprecating salt.
"There's almost like a bit of trepidation," he confesses. "Everyone seems to be taking to this record so well, I guess there's always a little part of me that's like, 'Is that OK?' I'm trying to enjoy the moment, I guess. I always try to live in the moment, but when the moment is 'Congratulations!,' I want to, like, blush and turn away."
Queens of the Stone Age and Guards perform Thursday, Sept. 12, at the Fillmore Detroit, 2115 Woodward Ave., Detroit. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $60 and $45. Call 313-961-5450 or visit www.livenation.com.
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