A Per­fect Cir­cle

As A Per­fect Cir­cle re­turn with their first al­bum in 14 years, we meet their founder to talk bal­anc­ing his player and pro­ducer mind­set, and the dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives that make him one of con­tem­po­rary al­ter­na­tive rock’s most orig­i­nal play­ers

Total Guitar - - CONTENTS -

Ev­ery­one has their own idea of a gui­tar hero, and some of the most inspiring play­ers in rock have been those who com­bine their role with a big­ger pic­ture. Al­ter­na­tive icons who emerged in the 80s like Johnny Marr, Robert Smith and Will Sergeant were think­ing be­yond just their gui­tar. And they were then able to carve new and inspiring paths for rock mu­sic as a re­sult. Billy How­erdel is cer­tainly part of that lin­eage, and when he and Tool vo­cal­ist May­nard James Keenan formed A Per­fect Cir­cle in 2000 with their de­but al­bum Mer­de­noms, he af­firmed him­self as not just a mod­ern rock player with his own distinct voice on the in­stru­ment, but one with a ta­lent for framing that in ear-pleas­ing pro­duc­tion and fresh ar­range­ment.

That’s still very much in ev­i­dence on the band’s lon­gawaited re­turn with Eat the ele­phant, but things have changed too…

This is the first al­bum with an out­side pro­ducer be­ing in­volved along­side you. Why did you de­cide to bring Dave Sardy into the process?

“I scored my first fea­ture film al­most two years ago

[ D-love] and for two or three days I hired an assistant who could just run the com­puter and be able to say, ‘Start record­ing, stop record­ing, give me an­other take, dou­ble that.’ I’d never sat on the couch and just played. I’ve al­ways had the com­puter by me, set up a mic and just done that. I re­ally liked the re­sult, it was in­ter­est­ing so I thought I’d give it a try [again]. To be able to see what the songs were like from above and not be as caught up with the screen.”

You spend a lot time craft­ing tones and it shows on this record – do sounds tend to in­spire songs?

“Big time. Well, this record was writ­ten mostly on key­board. So in the past the sound has in­spired more than even on this record. This record was writ­ten left and right hand and

that was also a lit­tle by in­ten­tion. If some­one asked me to play one of our songs at a camp­fire [be­fore] it would be hard to fig­ure out. Be­cause it was al­ways writ­ten as ‘the bass gui­tar has this role, then this gui­tar and this gui­tar are flavours that weave in’. Whereas now I could play The con­trar­ian or Eat The ele­phant or Dis­il­lu­sioned and cer­tainly …Fish, I could play them – badly – but I could play them as one part. So I guess maybe the songs have a dif­fer­ent feel be­cause of that. As eclec­tic as I think this record is there’s an an­chor and that’s hav­ing more of a tra­di­tional song struc­ture to it in that way.”

Some­thing that stands out in your work is how much space you leave for the other in­stru­ments – where did that mind­set come from?

“I at­tribute it all to the fact that I didn’t want to play blues gui­tar. Ev­ery­one starts with blues and I wasn’t very re­bel­lious but re­bel­lion to me was lik­ing non-gui­tar mu­sic. I was a big Elvis Costello fan and Squeeze but I liked The Cure and Echo And The Bun­ny­men… things like that, and they weren’t gui­tar hero bands – and Miss­ing Per­sons in par­tic­u­lar. The gui­tar parts were just one colour amongst many but didn’t stand on their own – it was hard to play one of those songs on the gui­tar with­out it just be­ing an acous­tic ver­sion.

“I had this CD car Walk­man and when I pulled the lit­tle 8" cord half­way out, it went out of phase. I could hear what­ever was just out of phase, so no kick drum, no bass gui­tar and no vo­cal. So any­thing that was spread all the way left and right is all I could hear. In the 80s things were panned hard right. So I got to fig­ure out all those var­ied lay­ers

that no one could hear ex­cept for the artist. I got re­ally into that. Now it made sense when I was fig­ur­ing the song out and it was much more in­ter­est­ing than, ‘Here’s a rock riff with a big gui­tar chord.’ Those are easy and are fun but it was those lit­tle colours that came out of un­cov­er­ing the se­crets of what peo­ple were play­ing in the back­ground for am­bi­ence.”

You use Axe-fx live, but do you use it for ef­fects in the stu­dio?

“No, very lit­tle. I’m able to find

in­ter­est­ing sounds with it but a lot of times I don’t use it in the record­ing process. Some­times, I’ll take a sound I’ve al­ready used, like for live on The Noose, which wasn’t [the sound] on the record, but the sound I used live for The Noose was inspiring for The con­trar­ian. So I’ve al­ready done the work and I know how to play that sound. I know how to play the pedal­board. So there were a cou­ple of colours like that but for the most part I play some­what dry and then add it later.

“There were a lot more ef­fects baked in this time and that was more from Dave. He likes to record with a DI and two or three amps and then mix them later. I’ve never done that. I get the one sound I know it’s go­ing to be and any ex­per­i­men­ta­tion I’m go­ing to do next is with ef­fects or fil­ters of some kind. Gen­er­ally, I know what that part wants to be. So that was dif­fer­ent on this record.”

What’s that like when you’re track­ing?

“Well, I find the amp I want to lis­ten to the most; what’s the most re­ac­tive. But usu­ally I’m in a room with the amp. It’s rare that I’m in the con­trol room play­ing. I like to have the pickup in front of the speaker but [with Dave Sardy] I’m not con­trol­ling these files and see­ing what they all are. A lot of these songs had so many tracks. I couldn’t make head nor tail of it so I’d lis­ten back and say, ‘That one’s both­er­ing me or that’s cool.’

Do you tend to use ped­als or plug­ins?

“A lot of built-in ef­fects on the amps. Some­times a re­verb on the amp, a spring re­verb. My friend Oliver Leiber has a stu­dio where we went to track quite a bit for the gui­tars and he’s just got a play­ground of vin­tage mu­seum qual­ity pieces over there. There were some re­ally in­ter­est­ing sounds that I got over at his place play­ing with old lit­tle com­bos and things like that.”

So it’s quite an old-school ap­proach. You’re not in the dig­i­tal world of gui­tar when record­ing as much as some peo­ple might pre­sume?

“Not at all. Yes, there are plug­ins you put on if you want a de­lay and there’s some re­verbs that were baked in.”

Your over­drive sound has a lot of pres­ence and weight but it’s not over­sat­u­rated, did you use your 1978 Mar­shall JMP Su­per lead 100 with the mod­i­fied preamp a lot for record­ing too?

“A lot. I’m a big midrange fan, I have a lot of it. My pres­ence knob is so touchy that it’s hard to mark, even when you do, you have to some­times go in and tweak. That’s where all the feed­back and all the overtones hap­pen. So, with my set­tings, my bass is full, my mid is full, my tre­ble is at seven and the pres­ence is at nine on my amp and it’s big but it’s very fast… I don’t know how else to say it but the sound is very re­ac­tive and fast.

“I hate red-hot gui­tar. I don’t know if that’s a term but it’s sat­u­rated I guess. Where things fold on them­selves and the de­tail is gone. If I’m go­ing to do that it’s an ef­fect. I like that if I’m play­ing on the neck pickup and I roll down I can play com­pletely clean, and it’s hard to do that when you’re fuzzy. Be­cause, no mat­ter what, it still sounds fuzzy and buzzy. Like a tube is about to go out when you’re play­ing with a mod­ern metal sound. It’s just my pref­er­ence.”

With sus­tain and drone parts, is that you find­ing a sweet spot in a room in front of an amp?

“Yes, big time. And it can be turn­ing the tini­est bit, or that win­dow over there is giv­ing too much slap, put some foam over that. We tracked a lot of this in real stu­dios, such as Sun­set Stu­dios. And that’s an­other thing, I’ve never re­ally tracked gui­tars in a stu­dio be­fore. Track­ing in a big­ger room was new to me. I’ve usu­ally tracked in much smaller spaces, so this time there were room sounds. It was re­ally tracked in a tra­di­tional way.”

When you play live do you also have to think very care­fully about your po­si­tion with cabs and vol­ume?

“Yes, where I stand. Some­times I have two 4 x 12s but the last year I’ve only played through one. A Mar­shall 4 x 12 and the amp I’ve al­ways played – well, the two dif­fer­ent amps I switch be­tween. Mostly a JMP and the Fried­man. Get­ting in­ter­ac­tion with the amp is im­por­tant to me. But it de­pends on the song. If it’s just barre chords, maybe not so much but even barre chords, the way it swells back and forth, it has to be at a cer­tain vol­ume, un­for­tu­nately. And that’s hard when you’re play­ing in a smaller place. It’s hard in a big arena too be­cause there’s a lot of dis­tance. I have to get back to the spot I have marked on the floor for cer­tain things, where I go to for cer­tain parts. Or I just know now for the rel­a­tive po­si­tion. The good thing about are­nas is our stage setup is the same ev­ery day with pil­lars and

“I'm a big midrange fan, I have a lot of it”

broad­tastes Billy says he found in­spi­ra­tion in bands with­out tra­di­tional gui­tar he­roes, such as Echo & The Bun­ny­men and Miss­ing Per­sons

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