Queens of the Stone Age are due onstage in Brooklyn any minute now, but frontman Josh Homme is nowhere to be found. Backstage, guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen, keyboardist Dean Fertita, bassist Michael Shuman and drummer Jon Theodore strum unplugged instruments and make stiff drinks. Suddenly, Homme bursts into the room. Everyone turns to look at the six-foot-four singer-guitarist, whose ginger buzz cut, knuckle tattoos and muscled-up frame make him look a little like a Viking warrior. "Fuck it," Homme announces, ripping up a copy of tonight's set list with a devilish grin and pouring himself a big shot of tequila. "We'll do the [new] record start to finish."
The Queens pummel the audience with the evil riffs and twisted grooves of . . .Like Clockwork – an album that's been out for less than a week – and the crowd explodes, throwing fists in the air. A few days later, the disc debuts at Number One. It's an impressive trick for their first album in six years – which is also their first since leaving their longtime major label, Interscope ("Like rats vacating a sinking ship," says Van Leeuwen), for an indie deal with Matador.
Homme loves this kind of thing – flipping the script, keeping 'em guessing. "The cool thing about disappearing for a while is re-emerging," he says the day before the show, sitting on a gold, thronelike sofa at his Manhattan hotel. "You show up, tap someone on the shoulder: 'Boo!' "
He takes a long pull off an e-cigarette. "I'm trying to quit," says the frontman, who turned 40 in May. "It's a shame to be controlled by something." Moderation is a relatively new attitude for Homme. Most of the world met him in 2000 as the wild-eyed madman growling the words "Nicotine, Valium, Vicodin, marijuana, Ecstasy and alcohol/C-c-c-cocaine!" over and over on the Queens' early signature song, "Feel Good Hit of the Summer." The next few years flew by in a blur of bar fights and feuds with other bands. In 2005, a judge made Homme go to anger management after he allegedly smashed a beer bottle over another musician's head. "I learned nothing," Homme defiantly told an interviewer two years later. But today, he is a contented husband and dad to two kids. Does he still party like he used to? "You mean, like it's 1999?" he says. "But it's not 1999."
Still, the old rock & roll animal isn't entirely gone. His raunchy sense of humor is intact – later tonight, he will entertain his bandmates with a long string of jokes about female anatomy ("Did you know you can see the Great Wall of 'Gina from space?"). And there's a brooding, menacing streak not far below the surface. Just ask him how he felt after touring the world in 2010 with Them Crooked Vultures, the band he formed with his old buddy Dave Grohl (who played drums on the Queens' 2002 breakthrough LP) and Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones. By the end of their run, Homme says, "I was starting to feel exhausted by it all. Musically bankrupt." His mood didn't exactly improve when complications from routine knee surgery forced him to stay bedridden in his Palm Springs, California, house for three painful months. "I was very bitter and angry," he says. "You go, 'God, I wish I could get rid of myself.' I hated music for a while. It just seemed like, who cares?"
On the mend, Homme had an idea that he thought he'd find rejuvenating: hitting the road behind a reissue of the Queens' 1998 debut – which meant teaching the current lineup, who all joined years later, to play the tunes that started it all. "I was hoping that would spark something for me, you know?" says Homme. "But I was still pretty out of it. Just searching in the dark, looking for something to hold on to."
After the tour, the rest of the guys talked Homme into starting a new album. He thought they could knock something out in six weeks. That didn't quite happen: The sessions ended up dragging on for five months, longer than they'd ever spent in the studio. A low point came last November, when Homme shocked his fans and bandmates alike by firing drummer Joey Castillo. "It was hard, but it was done by consensus," is all he'll say now. "That was the darkest time," adds Van Leeuwen with a sigh. "It didn't make any sense."
Castillo had been brought on 10 years earlier to replace Grohl. With the band needing another new drummer, Grohl was the first call. He laid down sledgehammer-heavy parts on five tracks, jump-starting the stalled sessions. (Homme eventually recruited Theodore, who used to drum for the Mars Volta, as a longer-term replacement.) A succession of other clutch assists followed, from old pals like Screaming Trees' Mark Lanegan to marquee names like Trent Reznor and Elton John, who sings and plays piano on the supercharged "Fairweather Friends." The collaboration was John's idea – he called Homme to offer his services as "a real queen."
But for serious Queens fans, the biggest deal is probably the two tracks featuring backing vocals from the band's demonic-looking former bassist Nick Oliveri, who was fired from the group in 2004 amid allegations of domestic violence and heavy drinking. (He returned to the headlines when a SWAT team raided his Hollywood home during a domestic incident in 2011.) "With all the coming and going in this band, you just never know," says Van Leeuwen. "I can't say how many pleasant and horrifying surprises have come into my life through this. It definitely makes you feel like you're alive."
After rocking Brooklyn, the band heads out to celebrate at an East Village bar. "I'm kinda beat," Homme protests to no one in particular around 1 a.m. "I've been getting up with my kids at seven in the morning." OK, fine, twist his arm – he'll stay out for another drink or two. The rest of the Queens are still going hard well past 3 a.m. But wait, where's Homme? No one seems to know. Just like that, he's gone again.
This story is from the July 4, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.