Up in a third-floor dressing room at the Wiltern, Joshua Homme is drinking Mexican beer and struggling to enjoy a borrowed ultra-slim cigarette. The singer-guitarist from Queens of the Stone Age looks and sounds the same as always, a big, wisecracking rocker with red hair cropped extra-short.
Other band members wander in and out, trading hellos with the bandleader, but when new drummer Jon Theodore arrives, Homme asks, "You got a real ciggy, babe? How are you?"
"I'm … fantastic," replies Theodore, bearded and grinning, as he pulls out a fresh pack. "It's a beautiful day for some rock 'n' roll."
The band has been spending a week at the Wiltern rehearsing for a coming tour and running through songs from a new album, "… Like Clockwork," set for release on Tuesday. In a few hours, Queens of the Stone Age would perform a two-hour concert to a full house of friends, family and some hard-core fans.
The album and the night's show represent a personal comeback for Homme, 40, who was quietly sidelined for a time from both a creative block and an unexpected health crisis. "… Like Clockwork" is a powerful return to the compelling hard-rock and sci-fi riffs the band is known for, with guests that include Dave Grohl, Trent Reznor, Mark Lanegan, Nick Oliveri and, most unexpectedly, Elton John. But it comes a full six years after "Era Vulgaris."
Not that Homme wasn't busy during the time between the band's albums. Most of those years were spent on tour, recording with side-projects Eagles of Death Metal and Them Crooked Vultures, a supergroup trio with Grohl and John Paul Jones. But the last three years, he tried to make a new Queens of the Stone Age album and got nowhere.
"I've always heard music in my head since I was a little kid, so I've always played towards that. If I felt bad, that's what I did," says Homme, who grew up in desert communities of Southern California. "Honestly, when I woke up, I didn't hear anything anymore."
He turned to transcendental meditation and had long talks with Reznor, a musical peer he knew casually. "I felt like he really understood, and that I understood him," he says. "He's really funny and I don't think people know that. He's also very smart. It immensely helped me."
In 2011, Homme told Britain's NME magazine that during knee surgery he'd stopped breathing, "died" on the table and had to be revived. He spent the next three months recuperating at home in Los Angeles, a dependably sturdy rock dude suddenly deflated.
At the Wiltern, Homme wouldn't get into the medical details of that experience but said it was only part of a larger physical crisis preceded by years of disregard for his health.
"I was exhausted. I like my brain to tell my body to shut up and do what it's told, and I haven't always been nice to myself," he explains. "I've never shied away from that. But eventually my brain had to listen to my body and I got real sick. I had to examine what was going on and there was no way around it."
Some of that experience can be heard in the new music, with some contemplative and self-explanatory song titles: "I Sat by the Ocean," "I Appear Missing" and "Fairweather Friends." The opening verses of the album's quietly dramatic title song has Homme singing alone with a piano melody and at his most vulnerable: "Most of what you see my dear is purely for show / because not everything that goes around comes back around, you know...."
One more crisis came in the form of drummer Joey Castillo's exit from the band after 10 years, which Homme suggests was a difficult but mutual decision. He then refers to an old tune by 38 Special: "Hold on loosely but don't let her go / If you cling too tightly to her / You're gonna lose control."
"That … is true. You can't be desperate to cling to something," he says. "Why we're at six records and however many years is because of being able to make hard decisions that saves everything else."
By chance Grohl was available. In addition to being part of Them Crooked Vultures, the Nirvana drummer and Foo Fighters leader had also been on Queen of the Stone Age's 2002 album "Songs for the Deaf."
"We just have a special thing. I'm so accustomed to those special symbiotic relationships having a due date, and his and mine seems far from its due date. I think it keeps getting better," Homme said.
Homme credits a session last November with another surprise collaborator for finally breaking him free of his creative block: Elton John, a fan of Them Crooked Vultures who called Homme out of the blue and ended up playing and singing on "Fairweather Friends."
"It took him 20 minutes to learn a song with nine or 10 changes in it," Homme remembers of their first, three-hour session in Burbank. "Then he wanted to come back and sing. I think we just hit it off. I like to make fun of stuff, and he does too. We were calling each other names right away, two workaholics working on the same engine."