A Perfect Circle – The 13th Floor Interview

A Perfect Circle, the band formed by Maynard James Keenan and Billy Howerdel almost 20 years ago, is about to release their long-awaited third album of original material.

Eat The Elephant is out tomorrow…15 long years after Thirteenth Step. In the interim, Maynard has kept busy with Tool and Puscifer, while Billy stepped out with his solo project, Ashes Divide.

Now they are back along with James Iha, Matt McJunkins and Jeff Friedl.

The 13th Floor’s Marty Duda spoke to Billy Howedel in an in-depth interview about the making of Eat The Elephant. The band was in rehearsals when they spoke…

Click here to listen to the interview with A Perfect Circle’s Billy Howerdel:

Or, read a transcription of the interview here:

MD: How are the rehearsals going?

BH: As expected. New songs: it’s diving into territory we’re not used to going. It’s new songs, but a lot of keyboard – a lot of synth stuff – so, in that technical, recreation mode. We’re getting through the songs, but we’re in that fine tuning of soundscapes, and there’s a lot to dive into; so, I’m on vacation, kind of relaxing, but my mind is still like, “Okay. What do I have left to do?”

MD: I’ve listened to the album, and that was the first thing I noticed: was the preponderance of keyboards, and things like that. Is that you, mostly, taking care of all that sound?

BH: Yeah. That, and Dave Sardy, who helped produce the record. He came from the same place and ways – liked the same bands, and appreciated the same aesthetic – so, he’d pick up in places that I wasn’t thinking, and vice-versa. A lot of these songs, I started on piano or synth, and, certainly, a nod towards a more nostalgic approach…. It was just diving into new territory.

MD: How is that going to affect the live performance? You being, usually, a guitar player: are you going to go back and forth between the keys and the guitars, or are you going to add other people? How’s that working?

BH: A little back and forth, but, generally, we’ve had James Iha’s been doing keys and guitar – splitting those duties. I’ll be splitting – same thing – a few songs. We’re figuring that out right now. I’ve always liked the idea of trying to make guitars sound like keyboards, in the past; so, this is the opposite approach: how do we represent these parts in interesting ways, using the guitar again?

MD: You mentioned James Iha. He’s going to be going and doing his Smashing Pumpkins thing. I imagine you’ve got to get someone else in there to replace him, right?

BH: Yeah. Our new replacement’s Greg Edwards. I think everyone in this band is a fan of his work – with Failure and Autolux – but he’s in the family. He’s a friend; so, it’s an easy transition, in that way. We’re lucky to have him.

MD: Just to get off the beaten track a little bit: the Smashing Pumpkins thing has created a bit of noise and news around the world, with all the hubbub going back and forth. Do you have any insights or opinions about it all?

BH: No. I don’t know much. I really haven’t talked to James that much; although, he’s been underwater, scheduling wise. He’s been getting ready for that tour. They’ve got a lot of songs to learn – new material – and, on top of that, he’s a film composer – I think he was in the middle of working on a TV show at the same time.

MD: One of your early gigs was as a guitar tech for them, right?

BH: Yeah. Probably one of the first bands – one of the first big bands. That was the big band I started with.

MD: Getting to talking about Eat the Elephant: obviously, it’s been a long time coming – very long time. When did it start feeling like this was going to become a reality, and what made that happen?

BH: Maynard freeing up schedule. There have been some false starts in the past. I thought, at one point, we were going to a record started… two years ago, but his schedule just freed up, and here we are. He’s a busy guy: he’s got three bands and a winery and a family; so, when the schedule allowed, we jump in there.

MD: There’s a quote where Maynard thought it was important for you to go out and do your own thing during this time. Did you feel the same way?

BH: You mean back in the mid-2000s?

MD: yeah.

BH: Yeah. We both were looking to do a solo record. It let him go out and do his solo record Puscifer, and me do Ashes Divide. Yeah, it’s very interesting. I think it makes us stronger as a unit, for sure. I mean, I can say that about… the way Maynard orchestrates and approaches vocals now: I think there are a lot of things he pulled, out of his experience with Puscifer, into this record; and I’m sure it’s the same with me: my Ashes Divide record had quite a bit of keys and synths, and things like that. It… is a continuation of that vocabulary reaching into Eat the Elephant.

MD: Coming back from that, and working on this record: did it change the way you and Maynard work together, or is it, pretty much, the same as it has been?

BH: Yeah! I don’t know if that did, but we had less interaction – or less physical face time – on this record, than any of the others. We did in the beginning – we got together and collaborated together in the studio – but then it was phoning or ‘internetting’ things in. Maynard would send vocal ideas, and I’d place them in the song, and keep working on it from there; and the only difference, is that I didn’t track his vocals with him this time. I only did a few songs at the beginning, and Mat Mitchell, from Puscifer, tracked Maynard’s vocals, and would send me his stuff. That was definitely a different approach.

MD: Having a producer – having Dave Sardy involved – is a new thing for you guys. When did he enter the picture, and what was his main role?

BH: I just wanted to try to bring someone else in to help me with the workload…. I started mentioning it, to our manager, maybe in may last year, or June. The record was under way. I just felt like it’d be nice to get some help with it, and just get a different perspective, and be able to sit back and be a musician. I’ve never done that. I’ve always been the equivalent of starting a restaurant, and trying to plan the menu and hire the staff and cook the food…. I don’t know; I just wanted to try a different way. I’m not saying I had any regrets with past records; I’m just saying that – to be political – I just wanted to see what it was like to sit back, see the aerial view of the songs, instead of being so immersed within it.

MD: And there’s nothing wrong with delegating a little bit, is there?

BH: Yeah, exactly. Costs more, but yeah.

MD: Was it difficult for you to take yourself away from the middle of everything and step back a little bit?

BH: Kind of. It was, but Dave’s a very capable and talented musician and producer. For me, it’s always hard to communicate, verbally, about music, especially emotionally. I’m just not good at it. I mean, I’ve got friends who are great at it. My friend, Danny Lohner, has worked with us in the past. He would always talk about things, and I would just say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” and I just go grab the mouse and keyboard, and respond musically, in a way. I just had to learn how to talk about things a little bit more, which is weird for me. I look at it like talking about sex before your… you know, there are just some things that are… I don’t know…!

MD: You don’t want to spoil it by discussing it too much.

BH: Yeah, exactly. I don’t know that I’m any better at it, to be honest, but it was definitely a different experience. Some of it – and this isn’t to be made to sound pejorative whatsoever – is like trying to teach a child how to cook, is what I’m trying to say. It’s a lot easier to just get in there and do it, but you might get some extremely interesting results having your four year old cook an omelette. With those guys – Dave has a crew, and they’re all extremely talented and know what they’re doing – they’re going to get great results; it’s just that what I had in mind might have been harder to communicate.

MD: The new single is Talk Talk – a track off the album – and, listening to that, I was realising that it could almost be an anthem for the recent student protests… for gun control… with lines like, “We’re bleeding out.” Was that part of the rationale behind releasing it at this point?

BH: You’d have to ask Maynard, but that song was certainly written before this whole event happened; so, I don’t think the timeline would line up. Unfortunately, it’s timely; I’ll just say that.

MD: … The lyrics are obviously Maynard’s, but they’re very political and opinionated. Do you and he discuss them, and make sure that you’re both on the same page before anything goes ahead?

BH: No, we don’t. I never go there with him. What he brings to it: it’s his authentic take on the music; so, whatever it is, he is responding, musically, to me, and that’s great. Sometimes he will tell me what a song’s about, sometimes not, and I really don’t pry. I, honestly, sit back and accept it for what it is, and move over to trying to bring my best to the work after he’s done.

MD: Music wise: do you try to find something that obviously plays off the lyrics? Do you listen to it in those terms, or do you just hope for some kind of synergy?

BH: No, because I think he does. I think he responds to the music with lyrics appropriate to it. Sometimes, there are times when – like on the song, Talk Talk – he’s like, “I hear something, but I’m not hearing.” “I’m hearing something, but I don’t know what it is,” he hasn’t cracked the code; so, I have to do a lot of discovery, musically, on the track, for it to land in a place for him to start writing to it. That was, uniquely, the most difficult one on the record.

MD: Why was that?

BH: I don’t know. There were other songs that he passed on, on this record, but he didn’t want to pass on that one. He felt like there was something there, but couldn’t hear it yet; so, he was trying to help me find the direction that was going to get him into the conversation…. I just did a score on my first film – and now, it’s going on almost two years ago – and, being a film composer, your job is to be in support of the film, not to be the star of it. It was a telling and good exercise for me, in this kind of way, because I feel like, more than ever, my job is to get the best performance out of Maynard; and what would that be, and how you do that? But I can still be authentic to what I’m writing. I write a lot of songs through the years, and if I’ve written seventy songs since the last APC record, let’s pick twelve of them that he’s into, and go from there.

MD: We spoke, briefly, about the focus on the keyboard sound. Has your relationship with the guitar changed, at all, over the years, and were you worried that, maybe, fans might hear the preponderance of keyboard, and be somewhat taken aback?

BH: I always knew the guitars would come back in. I think that’s the one part that might be strategic, in a way. I wanted to… get out of muscle memory. I put the guitar down, I’d say, in 2014, and wrote a bunch of these songs that summer, and just with that idea…. I read this amazing quote – I thought amazing – from Elvis Costello, who’s… probably my first favourite artist. His quote was, “When I’m stuck, musically, I pick up a left-handed, fretless bass in the dark, and see what happens;”so, metaphorically, I’ve just tried to approach that in many ways. Putting the guitar down and picking up the keyboard – which I’m very limited at – was, I think, a good approach, for me, to try and come up with other approaches to putting notes together.

MD: I was hoping to touch on a track called The Contrarian, which… has keys in there, and then there’s this big wash of sound that comes up near the end. I’m assuming that those are generated by guitars, but I’m not quite sure, and I was wondering if you could shed some light on how that was put together.

BH: Yeah, it’s an ocean of guitars coming over the sea wall, and that’s kind of been my favourite track on the record, so far. If I could pick one and live, I think it’s going to be a great track. It’s got a classic combination of a lot of different acoustical keyboard instruments, but there’s definitely guitar in there.

MD: That one is more moody and darker sounding, and then you’ve got a thing like So Long And Thanks for All the Fish, where it’s almost like a poppy, catchy song, which stands out from the rest of the thing. Did you want that contrast in there somewhere?

BH: It wasn’t written with that in mind, but maybe chosen for that – that levity, or whatever you want to call it. I was glad you responded to it, because it, musically, was a little different, but I just felt that it was a solid enough idea to present to him as an APC track; although, I kind of had it dog-eared for an Ashes Divide song – where that record was going – so, it’s good. It makes me reconsider everything. It makes me reconsider the other songs for Ashes. It was a keystone song within these twelve, to make it okay… start filling in some of the blanks in some of the songs that hadn’t been fleshed out yet, and Fish was one of those that helped define the record.

MD: You’ve also got a little instrumental interlude, almost, called DLB, that comes up later in the record. What was the thought behind that?

BH: I don’t know. I think it’s ginger for me – if you’ve had sushi: it’s a palette cleanser – there’s an act three coming up, and… I don’t know. I might answer that differently tomorrow.

MD: Right, fair enough! I’ll give you a call, and we’ll find out.

BH: Yeah. Let’s walk through that later.

MD: You mentioned it’s an act three: do you think of the album in terms of a cohesive statement or unit that has certain parts that fit together? I notice that some of the tracks seem to segue one into the other.

BH: Yeah. There’s effort that goes into the sequence, for sure. It’s definitely important to me. I feel like every track is strong in the record, and sometimes that’s hard to do, especially when it’s not my solo record. There’s compromise and negotiation that has to go on, but I’m really happy with the way the whole record flows; and sequence-wise too. I’d say the only thing Maynard and I differed on, was I was thinking with going with Contrarian as number two, and he wanted Disillusioned as number two. The segue – I was playing around with segues between Eat the Elephant – just made way more sense to go into Disillusioned; so, I think just that, in itself, was enough to convince me.

MD: Do those discussions go on for a long time, or do you guys realise within a matter of moments?

BH: Oh no! No, that’s a text message.

MD: Oh great!

BH: Literally, it takes hours for me sitting there listening to fronts and backs – and sometimes all of the songs – to get the sequence; because now the record’s done, and you really have to hurry up and go. Some of the songs are written with filling in those blanks, but, mostly, it’s done at the end.

MD: We should talk a little bit about the two other gentlemen in the band, who are handling the bass and drum detail; and especially Jeff, because he’s kind of new to the thing. How did he manage to be the person who you chose to fill in that role for this record?

BH: I’ve been playing with Jeff since early 2008. I hired he and Matt McJunkins to be bass and drums on Ashes Divide tour, and it made complete sense. When scheduling got screwy, or when Josh couldn’t  – It didn’t work out with having Josh on the tour in… 2011… – it just was a natural transition to move in with Jeff.

MD: And there wasn’t any concern with blurring the lines between this project and the other project?

BH: Oh, it was already completely incestuous. I mean, he was already going on to Puscifer. I said to Maynard, after the Ashes Divide run was over, I said, “I’ve got these two guys,” he hadn’t met them yet. I said, “They’re great guys. They’re strong players. Keep them busy, because I want to keep them around for the next Ashes Divide run.” So, he started hiring them on for Puscifer; and that was it.

MD: … Obviously, the musical chops have to be there, but you guys are going to be spending some time on the road now. You, obviously, know them fairly well, because you’ve been playing with them for a while, but is that an important aspect of whether or not you fit into the band?

BH: Absolutely, yeah. I mean, we know there’s a lot of people that are talented, but… huge part of it is chemistry off stage. That’s where the majority of your time is, is off stage. So yeah, everything flows nicely, and there are no complaints there.

MD: The album is out in about two or three weeks, I think it is. When do you guys hit the road?

BH: April 14th. That’s the first show in Tucson, Arizona; and we just do this quick, little week run. There are two Coachella shows within that week, and then we take a two week break, and then we’re off and running to festivals and other shows in the midwest of the US, and then, obviously, Europe for a month.

MD: Do you see yourself making it down to the bottom of the world here at all, at some point?

BH: I do. I don’t know when, but management and booking agents are kind of hatching that plan. We, as the band, want to go; so, now it comes down to their puzzle pieces; figuring out how to make it work.

MD: For yourself – looking ahead to once this process has run its course – do you see yourself doing what, perhaps?

BH: … I have started digging into these songs. When you’re in that studio mode, you want to keep flexing that muscle. I’ve been listening, a little bit more and more, to songs where, I guess… I don’t know what you’d call it: solo record… whatever it’s going to be called. I can say, quite confidently, that that will be the next thing I put out, and… after our tour’s over, we hope within six months after it’s done.

MD: Was it a conscious decision to not call it a solo project, but to give it the Ashes Divide name to it, to distance it, a little bit, from yourself?

BH: Yeah. I think just shyness. I don’t know what else! I don’t know, but, again, moving forward, I don’t know what I’m going to do with it, because it just feels like there’s ten years of the past from that. It is me on my own, and you can kind of become paralysed from choices, especially when you have your own thing going on; so, I might need a strong hand to whip me into shape on that; I don’t know, we’ll see. I’m open for discussion, but we’ll see…. The producer thing makes, almost, more sense, even in that situation going forward…. I look back on the Ashes record, and I am really proud of it; I listened to that somewhat recently. Although, it sounds like shit online; I have to do something about that. I listened to it on Spotify and Apple Music, and I was like, “It does not sound like that!” It sounds like there’s something completely wrong with it. That’s really bothered me. I’ve got to fix that!

MD: The problem, probably, is not you, but the streaming system, I’m guessing.

BH: It sounds like there’s a fan in front of it, or something – like your speaker’s in front of a fan. It’s always awful; so, I’ve got to get on that. But yeah, that’ll be coming soon.