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.

Prog - - Contents - Words: David West

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.”

Billy How­erdel

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.

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