How a 14-Year Break Let A Perfect Circle Make Their Best Album
We sat down with APC's mastermind Billy Howerdel to talk about the band's first record in 14 years, creative friction with Tool icon Maynard James Keenan, and gloomy aesthetics.
Courtesy of PR
This article originally appeared on Noisey Germany.
Fourteen years is long enough to forget that a band even exists. That's how long A Perfect Circle waited to release their new album, but the alternative-rock supergroup with singer Maynard James Keenan and guitarist Billy Howerdel remained unforgotten anyway. With Eat the Elephant, which released on April 20, APC have produced a more than worthy successor to their 2004 album of anti-war cover songs, Emotive.
On Eat the Elephant, mastermind Billy Howerdel pulls off the nigh-impossible for a beloved band: He's added strong new influences while remaining true to A Perfect Circle's characteristic sound. The record seduces with the epic-yet-catchy gloominess and dreamy melancholy that fans have come to expect, while the lyrics—penned entirely by Keenan—are APC's most political yet. From the uncomfortable cover art through to the final track, Eat the Elephant is permeated by a dystopian hunger for change.
Especially on the singles "The Doomed" and "TalkTalk," Keenan offers snarling, screaming criticism of the American status quo. At least we're left to assume as much; the singer keeps a close lid on the thoughts behind his lyrics, just like he hides his bald head under eccentric wigs for his work with the band. Fans of Keenan's main band, the progressive rock behemoth Tool, have also been waiting for fresh material for 12 years. Die-hards have been filling comment sections with concerned analyses: Is the 54-year-old losing his famous vocal range and power? Eat the Elephant puts those worries to rest: Maynard James Keenan is still a sonic force to be reckoned with. Even the rage that regularly colored his earlier work seems to have returned—maybe Trump has served one good purpose, after all.
Keenan barely has time to work on all his projects, let alone promote the work: Besides singing with A Perfect Circle, Tool, and Puscifer, the Ohio native runs a successful vineyard in Arizona. Prior to Eat the Elephant's release, Billy Howerdel took the time to sit down with me in Berlin and discuss his creative friction with Keenan, terror, and his love for the dark side.
Noisey: What was it like to come back with APC after a 14-year break?
Billy Howerdel: It's so nice to have the record complete, but I haven't really listened to it for enjoyment purposes. So it's almost like: Did it really happen? It's such a big setup, we've been working on it for so long, and then the record is mastered and mixed and the artwork is done, and you have to wait for some reaction. It's that weird limbo time in between, that three-month span. It feels a little numb, a little like you're waking up, being very groggy.
Was it intimidating to work on new material together?
Breaking through that first third of the process is always hard, not knowing exactly where the record is going to go. And it's good not to know. Once a few keystone songs were in place, it started to feel like, "OK, now I know what we have to do." I started saying out loud to my manager, "I don't need you to respond to this, I'm just letting you know: I think this is gonna be a great record." Maynard's starting to send in some amazing lyrics and vocals, and I'm really starting to see it come together. Then by September, we're just about to go on the road for the fall tour, and it's like, "Yeah, I think we have something really special here." Perhaps our best record. It's weird to say that, "best," "worst," "medium" record. I think we made the best record we could for the time that we're at right now, and between us as people. That's the biggest part of it: It's where we are musically, but where we are as people gets brought into the mix.
Has anything you've done in those 14 years had a big impact on your process?
Yeah, I just scored my first feature film over a year and a half ago, and that greatly affected this record. Just working with colors of strings and timpani and French horn and things like that. Things that didn't even make the movie, but that made this record. Like "The Doomed" and "The Contrarian"—those were started from cues in the movie. [I was] writing in service to something, whereas before it was kind of open-ended. And now I try to approach it like in the movie: You're the last storyteller. There's the one that writes the book, then there's the screen interpretation, the director shoots it and the editor edits it, and every one of those processes is a storytelling moment. But the score is the final [one]. You're left with the final task of telling everyone how they're supposed to feel, at the direction of the director, which is a really interesting thing. Whether we want everyone to question whether you're a killer, or whether you're just trustworthy, there's a different way that you communicate that with music. And we really all respond to it without thinking of it, as viewers of movies. So with this record, I just freshly came off of that movie, and I think it was very helpful to get into this with a more orchestral approach. It's very different from the other records in that way.
And instead of scoring characters in a movie, you're scoring Maynard.
Yeah, in service of inspiring Maynard to bring his best work forward. It's not a very cool thing to say, but I thought of it this way on this record: "What's gonna get the best out of him?" Because for a lot of people [the vocals are] the first hook. I just always say, my job is to make it so you can and want to listen to it for a long time. That it can be with you as a companion to parts of your life. That's the best hope I could have.
You write all of the music apart from the vocals. So you have this complete vision, and then Maynard comes in and starts influencing and tweaking it. Do you get into a visionary tug-of-war with Maynard?
Yeah. And maybe more so on this record. He wasn't there with me as much, but had strong ideas that he wanted to try. And some things that he wanted, that he liked in particular—let's say "TalkTalk." That song was so drastically different but one of my favorites. It's hard when you have one you feel very strongly about. The song was in a different time signature, meaning it was in 4/4 measure [instead of 3/4]. He liked the song, but he wasn't hearing his vocal yet. So he wanted me to try some other things. I'm almost more of a mind of [saying], "Let me just give you another song." Because trying to gender-change something completely, it's hard. But it worked. It just took a lot of energy and time. So we got it, but it was really on the last day of tracking. And it was a different thing than we all had in mind, really. It got more like the demo it was, just with heavier guitars. So yeah, there's definitely a tug-of-war, and there's definitely egos involved and it gets challenging. It's easier to talk about it now than it was to talk about it two months ago.
How do you pick your battles, or decide when to stand your ground? Depends how intense Maynard gets when arguing with you?
You know, there can be things that are triggering right off the bat. You take a minute and look back and go, "Maybe there's something to this. Or maybe this is just a power struggle, or maybe this is just…" Like with anything, you kind of have to assess. He's emotional, I'm emotional, and that's why we do what we do. There's baggage that comes with that. My least favorite question about Maynard is: "So what's it like working with Maynard?" It's like, "What was it like being breastfed by your mother?" I don't know—compared to what? I can't compare it to anything else. It's all I know. It was just happening.
I will say, you can't be a great lyricist… If you're tapping into all this stuff, it can be challenging to be graceful in every other aspect of your life. One thing I've learned from working with bands is an understanding of characters. Like when I was a guitar tech, I'd be paired with a lot of big personalities. I think it was understood that I was kind of good at navigating it. Some were tough—you know, like Axl [Rose], Trent Reznor and Billy Corgan. You can't expect everything to go exactly how you want it to go. But if you can do everything, then why don't you just do it yourself? Getting back to your initial question, like when do you pick your battles? I have great trust and respect for where Maynard is coming from, what he's capable of and what he can see. Because I'm down in the trenches and have my head so far in it. He doesn't bog himself down with the progress the way I do. So I'll give him that he can see a clearer picture sometimes than I can.
A Perfect Circle has a delightful sense of gloominess about it. Where does the fascination with the dark side stem from?
I don't know where it comes from originally. Who knows what we are when we're kids and growing up, but I've got four older sisters, and they recall me as being a really happy boy. Doing boy things, out getting dirty … I was just a kind of classic kid in that way. But I always felt drawn to much darker things, and I think the music was the expression of that. Maybe it was a counter, a balancing of those things for me. Pornography by The Cure and Tinderbox by Siouxsie and the Banshees, between those two records it was just so musically influential for me. It was rare for me to be into anything that was kind of upbeat and anthemic. When I started writing music, I started going there almost as an experiment. Like "The Hollow" on the first record; that song was much more Cure in essence at the beginning, and right at the last minute we changed it into a more anthemic kind of rock song. Before that it sounded a lot like "King Volcano" by Bauhaus. That was kind of the inspiration. I don't know; minor key has always been more interesting to me.
This record feels very political. Is that something you set out to do? Did you and Maynard discuss that during the process?
We talked about it in a personal way. The great thing about Maynard and I is that we're like brothers. So distance and time can pass, but the relationship is strong when we're back together. The need to explain is not there. If we say few things, it's understood. So in us talking about the state of the world and talking about doing a new record, we don't have to lay out exactly how that's gonna be. [We were also really affected by] the death of people around us that have been an inspiration. That was really hard for both of us. So he inserted that into there. I would do it non-verbally and he's doing it verbally.
I guess it's impossible to be completely apolitical in the times we're living in.
Yeah, I mean, how can anybody me? Unless your focus is just escapism and that's it. And I can see that too. If I was writing the lyrics for this, I could have written like, "How far from this can I get?" Because it's consuming. I mean, there was a time a year ago when I was just way too consumed by all this stuff. It was probably January last year, I started working on the record and I almost became paralyzed with feeding the need to get more information. And it was always the same: more terrible changes happening in our country. And not just from politics, but just the way people were reacting to it, with everyone choosing to be, basically, in a sports team and viciously attacking the other. That I just couldn't wrap my head around, because this change happened so quickly and it was really shocking. I had to get rid of all that stuff because I wasn’t getting the record done, and that kind of took two weeks.
Your bass player Matt McJunkins was at the Bataclan in Paris when IS terrorists attacked. Has that affected you as touring musicians?
Yeah, a lot. I've talked with Matt about it, however he wants to talk about it, and let him lead that conversation. I look up to him so much that he's able to get back on the horse and do it. I think, who can do that? It's heavy and it affects us all. We all think about it. At the end of the day, we can't live our lives in fear. It's like anything else—why do people get on the subway when they know there's a threat there? I just look up to those guys a lot for getting back out right away and doing it. It's the only way. Going back home and letting it process can be the most damaging. I lost my father right after our first record came out, and luckily I was on tour, because it just gave me a mechanism to get past it. And I could kind of slowly digest it as time went on.
Musicians have an advantage over someone who just rides the subway, though.
Yeah, it's an outlet. We're left to bottle, and especially if you're in a workplace, it's not the time or place for it. And with our job, we need to be. Certainly in the creative process. If it's constantly flowing, it doesn't build up. Like a fault line of an earthquake, you're just constantly releasing it.
Let's wrap it up with something lighthearted. Any guilty listening pleasures that people might not expect of you?
I don't feel guilty, but I'm a big country music fan. Like, classic country, though. I grew up listening to what was on my father's radio, and that was always Patsy Kline, Hank Senior and there was Nat King Cole—that's not country, but [my father] had a country and western bar in New Jersey, so that was a big part. I think the melody, the message in country music is so clear, and it's, like, the everyday person's message. It's simple, but it's potent. The melodies are just infectiously simple; they're made for anyone to be able to sing. And I think that's kind of permeated into my approach of melody.
Hank Williams had an influence on A Perfect Circle—I certainly didn't see that coming.
I think everything does, right? Everything you do is an influence. Or I could be completely off. I'm guessing.