NASHVILLE, Tenn. - When Josh Homme sat down to write the music that would become Queens of the Stone Age's long-awaited new album, he found he had nothing to say. Worse, he was vaguely embarrassed by everything he'd done before.
The mind has its dark places and Homme found himself stuck in some if its blacker recesses after dying briefly on the operating table during leg surgery in 2010.
"One of the things it did for me was it made music seem almost stupid to me, silly," Homme said. "For a guy who's always worshipped music - that's been my religion - to all the sudden feel foolish about playing music and to feel it was overblown, dramatic, self-absorbed bulls--- that meant nothing all the sudden was strange. So you almost have to like find your feet again and find your reason. I guess you just have to learn everyone gets knocked down, but it's the style that you stand up that's important."
It began with Homme sitting in a room trying to love music again. His wife finally got him rolling, convincing him to hit record and make the demos that would eventually become " ... Like Clockwork," the first new album for the Grammy-winning Los Angeles-based band since 2007. It's not really like any Queens of the Stone Age album you've heard before. It's dark - OK, darker - and brooding. There are slow, contemplative songs and the mood is far more vulnerable than on any of the band's previous five albums.
These changes were evident from the moment Homme began to write. The first track to emerge was "The Vampyre of Time and Memory," which starts off with a foreboding synth blast, melancholy piano and the words "I want God to come/and take me home/cause I'm all alone/in this crowd/who are you to me?/who am I supposed to be?/not exactly sure anymore."
"And I hated it because I thought, `Who's going to want to listen to this?'" Homme said. "And my wife Brody says, `Who cares?' And I stopped and went, `Oh, that's right. Who cares?'"
It was an important breakthrough, but just the first of many he'd have to make as he struggled to finish the 10 tracks on "... Like Clockwork." It took five months of intense frustration and worry. Along the way Homme lost his drummer, was bailed out by his best bud Dave Grohl, assisted by an all-star cast that included Queens fan sir Elton John, and became even closer with the guys who made it through the heart of darkness with him.
"It's a deep record," said guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen, a member of the band since 2002. "And we were in a deep, dark place and things weren't going like clockwork at all. That's, of course, the ironic part of naming your record `... Like Clockwork.'"
It took Homme a long time to get to the place where he wanted to share, and when he finally did, he found the difficulties were just beginning. The 40-year-old father of two typically carries a rock god smirk on stage and his music seemed to reflect a bare-knuckle, take-no-bull attitude.
Even when dealing with heavier themes, Van Leeuwen said, the group would often go for cheekiness or up-tempo sarcasm slathered in sludgy rock bombast. You can count the number of slow songs in the band's back catalog on one finger.
There are still a number of bare biceps moments on the new album, but it mostly skews toward textures on the black crushed velvet end of the spectrum.
"I know the guys really wanted to make a record," Homme said, "and I just had to tell them, `Look, I'm kind of lost in a fog and if you want to make a record you've got to come to me' - meaning you've got to walk into the fog - `because I can't come to you.' It felt like putting back together a puzzle but the puzzle was a broken bottle and there were 5,000 pieces."
Just how those pieces fit was sometimes baffling. How do you represent an uplifting feeling? How do you represent feeling completely missing?
Complicating things was the departure of drummer Joey Castillo after 10 years with the band. Grohl, Foo Fighters front man and adjunct member of the band, stepped in to help finish the sessions. And an all-star cast of guests that included John, Trent Reznor, Scissor Sisters singer Jake Shears and former Queens bassist Nick Oliveri helped keep sessions rolling forward when things got bleak.
"Just one day you're parting ways with your drummer of 10 years, two days later we're playing with Dave and two days later we're playing with Elton John and that's six days," Homme said. "You feel almost like pinballed around. It's a manic, dramatic six days."
Van Leeuwen said it came down to punching the clock.
"Sometimes if you don't know what to do, get up and dig a ditch. Or plant a seed," Van Leeuwen said. "There's a lot of sort of things that your folks would tell you that might help. My dad was a mechanic and my mom was a nurse. They worked every day. They didn't have problems of creativity, but those kind of philosophies that are instilled in you I think as a kid really helped in this situation."
Now that the album's ready to roll out and a tour is at hand, Homme finds it easier to talk about. He says he feels wonderful now. As a result of all the things that have happened since doctors used a defibrillator during leg surgery to restart his heart and the resulting long recovery, he says he's reprioritized his life and put the focus in the right places.
"The pathway to music is fraught with strange dangers and I think I've beat myself up for so long and been so rough on my body and in turn rough on my mind, so I just kind of pulled myself together," Homme said. "And it's the family that you always care about makes you see the light."