Backstage at "The Tonight Show" in Burbank, Joshua Homme is leading the Eagles of Death Metal from the stage through a maze of rooms and corridors, a series of unmarked doors and narrow hallways, to a quick meeting with the soundman, then back again and up to the dressing rooms.
He's a tall redhead in denim and black motorcycle boots, a rocker who's been here many times before, with the Eagles and as the leader of his own Queens of the Stone Age. His longtime best friend, singer-guitarist Jesse "Boots Electric" Hughes, walks a few steps behind with a thick auburn mustache, and a miniature dagger hanging from a chain around his neck.
The band will close the show, ripping through the raw, riff-based rock of "Wannabe in L.A." for host Jay Leno and a TV audience of several million. It's a big buildup to a blazingly quick performance, but Hughes gives the impression that he's having the time of his life. "I love every second I'm up there," he says of being onstage. "It's the greatest thing in the world."
The TV gig is in support of the latest Eagles of Death Metal album, "Heart On," which has earned some of the best reviews of the band's career so far. The current U.S. tour lands Wednesday at the Henry Fonda Theater in Hollywood.
The band's 2004 debut album, "Peace Love Death Metal," was rudimentary riff-rock in the tradition of the Ramones, AC/DC and Ace Frehley at their most stripped down and euphoric, with an excited clatter of horn honks, cowbells and Hughes' falsetto shouts of sexual innuendo and dancing all night. "Heart On" builds on that foundation, stretching out with new sounds and textures, and some of Homme's sci-fi guitar effects at the margins.
It was a long-term project pieced together and produced by Homme between Queens' gigs in studios spread from Fargo, N.D., to New Orleans to Amsterdam to Van Nuys.
"Queens is a grand vision to me," says Hughes, comparing the two bands, "and Eagles is like an idea: 'I've got an idea! Let's go hang out! You like the Ramones and "Brown Sugar"? We'll sing it a bunch!' "
That core mission hasn't changed, but there's a subtle, and growing, sophistication in the grooves. The elegant track "Now I'm a Fool" mingles acoustic and electric guitars for an understated tale of heartbreak beneath the sun and palm trees of Hollywood.
"From the second we started playing together, it was always serious," says Homme. "It's never been a side project, but both Jesse and I felt it was useless to try to fight against any of that stuff. It's too much talking."
Homme and Hughes, both in their mid-30s, met as teenagers in Palm Desert. Their first encounter was at a party where a bully had just thrown Hughes into the pool. By his own admission, Hughes was then an obnoxious, skinny kid with a big mouth, an obvious target for abuse.
"I remember hearing this voice: 'Let him get . . . out of the pool!' " says Hughes. It was Homme. Soon they were playing soccer on the same team of misfits, sharing an appetite for rock 'n' roll and British humor.
Homme already was playing guitar in the hard rock band that would evolve into Kyuss, his first serious, signed act. Hughes played the flute. He never sought a musical career but worked as a journalist, volunteered for Sonny Bono's U.S. Senate campaign and had a son. After his marriage broke up, Hughes started writing songs.
"Things had gone into the dumper," says Homme. "All of a sudden, this music was for real. I could hear it."
They formed a new band, playing gigs between Homme's Queens projects. Homme was the drummer and encouraged Hughes to take his rightful place as the frontman.
Following one performance in Denver, Hughes stood at the front of the theater with a pillowcase full of bubble gum, still sweating as he tossed gum to fans. "I like people, and these people just smiled at me while I was doing something embarrassing," says Hughes.
When Eagles of Death Metal was invited to join the 2006 Guns 'N Roses tour, Hughes was thrilled. GNR's "Appetite for Destruction" represented to him everything in rock that was "reckless, extravagant, decadent -- all the things that can't happen anymore."
Opening night in Cleveland didn't end well. After the band's 35-minute set, Rose had a question for the crowd. "So how'd you like the Pigeons of . . . Metal?" asked Rose, replacing "Death" with a popular word for excrement. "Don't worry, that's the last show they're playing with us."
Hughes was on the tour bus, watching a DVD with a couple of female hairstylists. "Axl had PA speakers put everywhere in the stadium, so you could hear everything," he remembers. "When I heard him say that . . . I spit out my drink. No!"
Hughes got over it. He leans forward to show off a new tattoo on his left arm: a pigeon trailing a ribbon with the offending name. "Being disapproved of by my hero for a moment was not a good feeling," he says, though he still dreams of recording a single with Rose under the "Pigeons" name.
Homme wasn't on that tour. "I told Jesse before, 'By Day 4, you'll either be his guru or you'll be off the tour, so watch out,' " says Homme of the Guns 'N Roses frontman. "I had no idea it would be Day 1."
Hughes is outside having a smoke. He smiles as he steps back into the studio. "That was my best performance ever on television," he says excitedly, noting times when he broke a string or unplugged his guitar at the worst possible moments.
Tonight was pure rock 'n' roll and the greatest feeling in the world.
Eagles of Death Metal with the Living Things
Where: Henry Fonda Theater, 6126 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood
When: Wednesday, 8 p.m.
Contact: (323) 464-0808