On an oppressively hot evening in late May, Queens of the Stone Age are sound-checking inside the Cotton Club. Josh Homme rips melodic, whinnying bursts from his guitar, between lines of "Go With the Flow," a furious, groove-laden rocker from their third album, Songs for the Deaf. Nick Oliveri, the bald-headed, goateed yang to Homme's yin, lurches back and forth, thumping his bass and taunting a nonexistent crowd. To their left, Troy Van Leeuwen, jet-black hair hanging over his face, bounces his hands feverishly off his keyboard. Behind them, Dave Grohl leans forward, eyes wide, with a maniacal look on his face, as he pounds out muscular beats on his drum kit.
They finish the tune, and Homme glances backstage.
"Is Mark around?"
Mark Lanegan emerges, cigarette dangling from his left hand, and walks silently to the front of the stage. The band launches into "Song for the Dead," a spooky, stop-and-go track from Deaf. Lanegan's brooding presence and nicotine-chafed vocals transform Queens from a slamming heavy-rock dynamo into an ominous psychedelic freak show.
They finish their soundcheck, break down their gear and drift backstage toward a beer cooler. In an hour, they'll play the first show of a string of dates preceding Deaf's release. In a few months, the album will be released to critical acclaim. The first single, "No One Knows," will be added to rock radio playlists nationwide, proving perhaps, that there's room for a loud, heavy rock band that doesn't ape the dreary nu-metalheads or garage-rock fashionistas who are currently the rage.
But backstage, radio play is far from these guys' minds. As a matter of fact, the thematic Songs For The Deaf takes pointed shots at rock radio.
"Deaf -- like people who listen to the radio are deaf," Oliveri explains.
"The songs are sort of all over the place," Homme adds. "We needed something to tie them together. It's also a way for us to make fun of radio. Making fun of stuff is what we do."
"We heard this song today that sounded so much like A Perfect Circle -- and he's in A Perfect Circle," Homme continues, motioning to Van Leeuwen, who plays guitar in the Tool side-project. "We were all like, 'What the fuck?'"
"Earshot," Van Leeuwen grumbles, identifying the transgressor.
Van Leeuwen isn't the only one for whom Queens isn't a full-time pursuit. The band's only permanent members are Homme and Oliveri, who split Queens' songwriting and vocal duties. The two grew up together in the Southern California desert and formed the influential heavier-than-metal outfit Kyuss as teenagers to stave off boredom. Lanegan, besides fronting Screaming Trees (who seem to be on permanent hiatus), crafts dark, blues-tinged solo albums. And Grohl, of course, has a little outfit called the Foo Fighters.
As if on cue, Grohl pops into the dressing room, holding a banana and sporting a goofy grin. He moves around the room much like he plays drums -- manically -- before squeezing in next to Homme on the couch and offering an unsolicited autobiography. "My name's Dave. I'm 33. I'm a Capricorn. I was born in Warren, Ohio, and I moved to Alexandria, Va., when I was 3 years old because my father worked for Scripps-Howard."
Queens' whole existence seems to challenge the traditional idea of what a band is: longtime friends, slugging it out through thick and thin. Of course, the dynamic is forever shaky, since the threat of losing members to their main projects always looms. After Deaf's August release, Grohl will surprise no one by leaving to refocus his energy on the Foo Fighters. Another moonlighter, Danzig's Joey Castillo, will replace him.
The Queens won't be fazed.
"It feels like a band. Nobody has big egos, everyone can write music, everyone can sing, everyone can play stuff," says Homme. "We're just trying to be like a roving circus."