A Perfect Circle
As A Perfect Circle make their unexpected return with Eat The Elephant, Maynard James Keenan and Billy Howerdel talk to Prog about the creative importance of rearranging closets, proficiency versus creativity, and always looking forward.
Still no Tool album… but the first APC album in 14 years!
Things no one was expecting in 2018: that the President of the USA had a fling with a porn star and society acts like that’s normal; that Facebook gave everyone’s data to a dodgy lobbying group; that A Perfect Circle have made a new album.
The last time Billy Howerdel and Maynard James Keenan’s band released new music was in 2004, but after a 14-year gap, they’ve leapt back into the fray with their long-awaited fourth album Eat The Elephant. Can it be a coincidence that after eight years of Barack Obama in the White House, now that there’s the human Cheeto in charge, suddenly APC have released new music?
“Friction is where the art happens really, in anything,” says Keenan. “The violin is the perfect metaphor for that friction. It’s wood bent in impossible angles and directions and the strings are tied tight and it’s the friction of the bow on the strings – everything about it is friction. The resonance that comes off it is the release and the art, but there is a lot of tension there. So yeah. I’ve been making music even with a Democrat in office, but about different things I guess. Nothing like a good Nazi to get you going.”
Howerdel’s explanation for the emergence of the album is a little more prosaic. “It comes down to Maynard’s schedule, with him being busy with so many other things,” says the guitarist. “The first thought was to do a record, but then, hey, let’s go on tour and exercise the old songs, remember how to play and get in that place.
“I’m really glad we did that because we started making the record before we went on tour and I felt… stuck isn’t the right word, but I didn’t have that
“I just think we do what we do and I guess we try to categorise it after. I think if you try to duplicate your steps to maintain what you were then you’re stuck with what you were.” Maynard James Keenan
energy of being on the road. The last time we toured was 2013, we did South America and Australia, and we played just two shows for Maynard’s birthday the following year, so it’s good to remember the energy of being on stage to translate that into the record.”
Eat The Elephant sees the band spreading their musical wings, from quiet, melancholic piano passages in Disillusioned to the barbed vitriol of The Doomed, and the Devo-style art rock of Hourglass. For much of the album’s creation, Howerdel and Keenan worked and wrote separately, sending files and ideas back and forth between them. One creative burst saw them write three songs in the space of two days.
“There’s definitely a mindset you have to get into where you’ve opened up all the channels,” says Keenan. “Nothing is ever going to be perfect, but you definitely have to be in the mindset for those things to happen. When you’re on that roll, it’s best to keep on that roll. For me, there are a lot of moments of downtime where I’ve rearranged easily seven closets and a garage because you’re on that roll but you have to walk away from it, turn your brain off, get some distance.”
For Howerdel, the creative spark is something that can catch light at any time, regardless of whether or not it’s convenient. “I hope it doesn’t go away,” he says about the unpredictability of inspiration, “but I’d like it if I didn’t get my best ideas when I’m not late to be somewhere, because it’s always the way it happens.”
He singles out the song Judith, from the band’s debut album Mer De Noms in 2000, as an example.
“I got out of the shower in a towel, sat down at the computer because I heard the melody in my head. I put it down on a keyboard and then just got deeper and deeper. That was at six o’clock at night. The next thing you know, it’s three in the morning, I missed the birthday party I was going to but the song was done. I felt really bad because I missed my friend’s birthday but that’s just the way it goes. I need some kind of pressure I guess.”
Howerdel grew up idolising Ozzy Osbourne’s guitarist Randy Rhoads, yet Eat The Elephant sees the group dialling down their metal influences and widening their canvas. For Keenan, there’s more room in the music now.
“Billy tends to fill in gaps, he fills in conversations where there are no words and he does the same with music,” says Keenan. “So this time I was very conscious of, ‘Let’s turn that off, let’s leave some space here.’ We forget that there’s a closure that happens with riffs. You don’t have to play the riff through the whole song. You can play it here and then not play it here, but your ear still hears it in that space and that’s hard for guitar players to wrap their heads around.”
“Maybe a little less metal – there’s probably less riffage going on,” says Howerdel, who says he’s never knowingly heard anything by King Crimson but admired The Cure and Echo And The Bunnymen as a young musician. “I feel like there’s more density in parts on this record, but I don’t know. I’d have to sit and listen.” In a departure from previous
APC albums, this time Howerdel did most of his writing on the piano. While he says he’s not a very accomplished pianist, he believes his limited knowledge of the formalities of the instrument to be a benefit, rather than a hindrance.
“It’s nice to fumble in the dark a little bit,” he says. “I’m not a very good piano player, but I don’t want to be. I took like six lessons three years ago and it was with our old bass player Paz’s [Lenchantin] mother – she’s an amazing pianist. I just bought a piano from her father. I told her, ‘I don’t want to learn how to read music, I don’t want to learn about chords and structure, but I really want to get better. What can you do?’
“It was so out of her element, so she just gave me some exercises for coordination and it really helped get me to be a solid B-minus player now. I can play but I have to really struggle at it, and I think that’s what songwriting and creation is. The people I know who are super proficient aren’t the most creative.”
As time was of the essence, with the band setting themselves deadlines in order to keep on schedule, Keenan worked on vocals with Mat Mitchell, his bandmate
from Puscifer, either in their North Hollywood studio or at Keenan’s home in Arizona, while Howerdel and producer Dave Sardy recorded the music in studios around LA.
“Initially it was just me going,
‘Okay, I hear this thing you’ve got going on, but there’s so much going on. Turn a bunch of shit off. Give me the piano part or the guitar part and the drums. Strip it down,’” says Keenan about their writing process. “Then
I’ll start to hear things in a better way. ‘Okay, follow that path. Come up with something with Dave, I’ll put something on it and you’ll hear where I’m going with it.’ Rather than talk about it sitting in a room, waiting for him to do his thing, then he’s waiting for me to do my thing, having those two studios going at the same time was great because we were able to be like, ‘Do your thing,’ ‘I’m inspired,’ ‘Hey, thanks, that was awesome,’ and then he hears what I did. We played tag team on tracks.”
Despite the prevalence of streaming, Howerdel still believes in the value of creating an album’s worth of music. “I’m just a dinosaur,” he says, “so I like the form of an album, and for whatever superstitious reason, that’s 12 songs. The hope is that people will take it in as a body of work and give it that time. It’s like being mindful of what you’re eating. If you slow down, chew slowly, it’ll taste better. If you’re like, ‘I’ve got to eat and get out the door,’ then you might miss the point of what delicious food is. Music is the same way.”
The guitarist remembers an incident where David Bowie displayed an almost eerie prescience with regards to the future of the music business.
“I worked for Bowie in ’96,” says Howerdel. “One day he turns to us, Reeves [Gabrels], Coco [Schwab] and I, he was reading a book, he puts it down and says, ‘I believe in the future, our records will just be advertisements for our live show.’ And then went back to it. This was ’96, so there’s barely an internet, MP3 wasn’t a thing yet, and it was so spooky how true that has become. It’s your calling card for your live show, but more so, it sells people the culture of your product. At the end of the day, you’re selling something so you can keep doing what you’re doing.”
The Doomed is one of the album’s most provocative songs as Keenan sings, ‘Fuck the doomed, you’re on your own,’ in a very pointed critique of the state of American society.
“It seems like that’s everyone’s attitude, isn’t it?” says Keenan. “Growing up in a Baptist indoctrination in Ohio, I was pretty sure that guy nailed to that stick up at the front of the room had a lot of better things to say about what’s going on in the world than ‘Fuck ’em’. I don’t really think that was his message, but that seems to be the prevailing attitude.” With any music, but perhaps particularly with heavy, intense music, there’s no guarantee that an artist’s message will be interpreted in the manner it was intended. Once a piece of music or art has been sent out into the world, the creator surrenders their control of it. The singer says he’s experienced that sense of discovering a band, only to lose the feeling of ownership as they became popular.
“In Grand Rapids, going to art school, I was a big fan of REM back in the day, the first EP and the first couple of albums,” he says. “Then out of nowhere in Grand Rapids, at one of the arenas, all of a sudden there are all these frat kids all doing this weird dance, all in lines, at the back watching REM. What the fuck happened?
These guys are shoegazer weirdos like Camper Van Beethoven, then there’s all these IZOD sweater-wearing white people. Get the fuck out of here, you’re ruining my band. Then it was gone, it was no longer ours.”
The only response is to become weirder, to keep out what Keenan dubs the knuckleheads. “Then you start Puscifer, outrun them,” says the singer. “Throw wrestlers at them. ‘What the fuck is he doing?’ Exactly, get out.”
Asked if he feels like part of the progressive rock scene with A Perfect Circle, Keenan replies, “I just think we do what we do and I guess we try to categorise it after. I think if you try to duplicate your steps to maintain what you were then you’re stuck with what you were. Being where you are and looking forward is better, but there are nods back to what you did just because you were doing it. I suppose that’s relevant. I try to look forward as much as possible.”
“I worked for Bowie in ’96. He was reading a book, he puts it down and says, ‘I believe in the future, our records will just be advertisements for our live show.’ And then went back to it.”
A PERFECT CIRCLE, L-R: MATT MCJUNKINS, JEFF FRIEDL, MAYNARD JAMES KEENAN, BILLY HOWERDEL, JAMES IHA.
TUCK IN: A PERFECT CIRCLE’S NEW ALBUM, EAT THE ELEPHANT.
THE ELEPHANT MAN: MAYNARD JAMES KEENAN ON STAGE.