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The Queens of the Stone Age have been known to throw a few punches in their time. The hard rockers have long been stuck with a reputation as heavy drinkers - and occasional ruffians.

But the past few years seem to have matured the Palm Desert, Calif.-based band, which begins a cross-Canada tour tonight in London, Ont., from where it will wind its way through relatively small venues in Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Edmonton and Calgary, ending its Canadian travels in Vancouver on Sept. 1.

For starters, the band's imposing, ginger-haired ringleader, 34-year-old Josh Homme, has got himself duly hitched to former Distillers singer Brody Dalle, and recently became a new father with the birth of their daughter, Camille.

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Not that Homme is prepared to let fatherhood take full control of the rock-star persona he has cultivated ever since extolling the virtues of seven hard drugs - those would be nicotine, Valium, Vicodin, marijuana, ecstasy, alcohol and cocaine - on Feel Good Hit of the Summer, the opening track of the band's 2000 CD, Rated R.

Or maybe that persona was just that: a bit of a front.

"Honestly, I'm the same as I always was. I've always been about balance," says the 6-foot-5-inch Homme (looking not unlike a modern-day lounge singer, complete with pristine, white shoes) in between drags on a Camel Light and sips of a Starbucks Italian soda. "I've never treated women as objects ... so, for me, it's the same as it always was. Respect is the gift you give yourself."

Today, the Homme family finds itself touring the Great White North along with the latest version of the new dad's band of merry pranksters: guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen and drummer Joey Castillo; plus newer additions, fresh-faced bassist Michael (Mikey Shoes) Shuman and Raconteurs multi-instrumentalist Dean Fertita.

Still, it's odd for a major-label band armed with a slew of gold records to support an album in the intimate venues that Queens of the Stone Age has booked, knowing that a full-scale headlining arena tour would probably have sold out. The current tour, Homme says, is a co-ordinated effort, intended to resurrect a chemistry with the band's fan base, which he and his mates felt was lacking after touring their last album, 2005's Lullabies to Paralyze.

"I'm from a place that's smaller than Saskatoon," notes Homme, who was born in Palm Springs, "and I know what it's like when somebody comes and plays your town that never does. That's what I want to do more than ever."

Adds Homme, "It's part of a realization that I should have been doing this a long time ago. I feel like sometimes there's been an accidental gap between us and our fans, because of who we are as a band."

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Canada and the Queens have long shared a deep affinity, one that dates all the way back to Homme's previous band - stoner-rock legends Kyuss, whose members came together in the early 1990s only to disband several years later. Homme has also maintained a decade-long relationship with the owner of Toronto's Bovine Sex Club, where the band recently conducted media interviews in preparation for its cross-country tour. As well, long-time sound man and unofficial band member Hutch (he goes by that single name) was born and raised in Northern Ontario.

"I actually think that to many U.S. bands, Canada is like the forgotten country a lot of the time," Homme says. "My preference is to come up here instead of going to somewhere like Salt Lake [City] you know what I mean? I'm proud of our Canadian audience."

It doesn't hurt that the band's Canadian fans seem to know when to show up - and how to get liquored up for a night of fun. "It may be wrapped in something harsh sometimes, but I want people to focus on having a good time, and our audiences here always have a knack for being there before we are. When we played Lee's [Palace, the venerable alt-rock venue, in Toronto, in 2002] all the whisky, vodka, even the Jagermeister - all those bottles were just gone before we finished our last song."

While their new album's moniker, Era Vulgaris, may serve as an invitation to a series of juvenile quips, Homme reveals that the CD was an attempt to shine a light on the decrepit and bloated L.A. celebrity scene, which he and Dalle have deftly avoided joining, at least in the headlines. "It's less accusation and more observation, and to me there's a critical difference," he says. "I'm just saying what I see. And to tell you the truth, there's whole bunches of that scene that I don't mind. It would be really impossible for Paris Hilton to drag me down. She's good for, like, five minutes of brain and eye candy. But after that, I'm, like, 'Next!' "

With songs such as leadoff singles Sick Sick Sick and 3's and 7's , along with more sombre tracks like Suture Up Your Future and Into The Hollow, Era Vulgaris is a more upbeat and edgy album, a stark contrast to Lullabies, whose release was caught up in the departures of the band's troubled bassist, Nick Oliveri, and ex-Screaming Trees troubadour, Mark Lanegan.

"It was good to get a clean slate after all the bullshit," says Homme, who adds that the new album "feels like it's still dark, but it's still 12:01 a.m., you know? We're never going to make a record that's 1:30 in the afternoon, vibe-wise. It's always going to be past 8 o'clock."

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Homme also points to a series of upcoming releases that will further cement his status as one of the hardest-working artists today. A new album with boogie rockers Eagles of Death Metal is scheduled for release next Valentine's Day. Also coming down the pipes in the next few months: an EP that could contain as many as 10 B-sides recorded during the Era Vulgaris sessions; a reissue of the band's debut self-titled album; and a box set containing all 10 released volumes of the Desert Sessions (a potpourri of one-off, week-long studio sessions that Homme has cobbled together with a variety of musicians).

Also in the works is the album's next single, Ma ke It Witchu, arguably its standout track, for which Homme finished filming a video last week in Joshua Tree, Calif. Discussions to release a collection of live shows which the band has recorded ever since they began performing are also under way.

For an artist as prolific as Homme, it also may be a surprise to learn that, at least as he describes it, his inspiration doesn't lie solely in the age-old trifecta of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, but rather in the California desert environment in which he grew up.

"The animalistic side of things has been my best analogy, and the most guilt-free explanation of what I think. ... The amount of times I've just sat there with a handful of dirt may mean nothing on the printed page, but it helps inspire me," he says. "Generally, I think music is the extenuation of the one per cent of you that's different from everybody else.

"It's how we relate, but it's also about vocalizing the thing that's different about us, that doesn't make you just a regular leg of lamb."

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