In a world-exclusive interview (with two epic covers to boot, too), Kerrang! catch up with Maynard James Keenan and Billy Howerdel to unveil the first A Perfect Circle album in a whopping 14 years – and trust us when we say that it’s been worth the wait
A PERFECT CIRCLE HAVE BEEN FACING QUESTIONS ABOUT THEIR LONG-AWAITED FOURTH ALBUM FOR OVER 14 YEARS. AND, FINALLY, THEY’RE READY TO GIVE THE ANSWERS. IN OUR WORLD-EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW, MAYNARD JAMES KEENAN AND BILLY HOWERDEL INTRODUCE THEIR LATEST OPUS, EA
Maynard James Keenan has a very good reason as to why A Perfect Circle haven’t made a new album in 14 years. It has something to do with their guitarist and founder, Billy Howerdel. It’s probably best that Maynard explains this one.
“Right around late 2004, I cryogenically froze Billy,” begins APC’S frontman.“working with Dairy Queen and the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame, as an experiment we went ahead and froze him and… I fucking forget! Like, ‘Oh shit! We gotta unfreeze Billy!’”
Maynard issues a quick chuckle as he outlines the “Hey man, sorry…” conversation he was forced to have with his freshly-thawed bandmate; one that preceded the altogether bigger process of bringing Billy up to speed on the trauma of human history over the past 14 years.
“We really had to give it to him a piece at a time, because…” Maynard draws a sharp, condolatory intake of breath.“poor boy.” Is Billy okay now? “Yeah, he’s coming around,” sighs Maynard. “He’s really excited about promoting the new album on Myspace.”
Maynard is in Jerome,arizona, taking a break from working at his Caduceus Cellars
winery, when he begins to spin this farcical comedic web. However, for the purposes of journalistic integrity, three days later and some 350 miles away, Kerrang! decamps to LA to catch up with Billy to gauge the veracity of this story.we locate him at Marcussen Mastering studio on Hollywood Blvd where, aside from bouts of yawning, he insists he feels “great after that little stint under the ice.”
Call it a hunch, but we suspect the real cause of Billy’s fatigue has nothing to do with shaking off his purported permafrost entombment. Rather, it’s because he’s been up since 6:30am finishing A Perfect Circle’s highly-anticipated fourth album, Eat The Elephant. If that name – and indeed the lyrics of the moving, piano-led title-track – implies a mammoth undertaking, it certainly seems apt.
To say Eat The Elephant is eagerly awaited doesn’t really do it justice. For one,apc’s first two studio albums, 2000’s Mer de Noms and 2003’s Thirteenth Step, are both regarded as unimpeachable classics, while 2004’s EMOTIVE was a beautiful set of anti-war covers. Second, for all the memes of skeletons waiting for Tool’s new record to arrive, even that hasn’t been as long in the offing as this.
When K! greets Billy, it has finally been completed.at least, we think it has.
“I just barely finished the mastering about 30 seconds ago,” Billy explains.“it has to be done in 12 minutes.” He laughs nervously, then corrects himself. “11 minutes.” Surely not… “I’m not kidding,” he says.“i’m just done with the sequence and the crucial cross fades. The mastering studio is getting it over to be pressed to vinyl at a place a third of a mile away from here…”
As to the finished album, well, anyone who has heard Eat The Elephant’s mesmeric first two singles,the Doomed and Disillusioned, may not be surprised to hear that it is, in Billy’s view,“a dark record”. Kerrang! was graced with an unmastered advance version and can confirm that much is certainly true.we can also testify as to its impending status as a future classic.
Yet the new songs are only part of the story at hand.aside from sporadic tours, greatest hits and live releases,a Perfect Circle have largely spent over a decade in creative stasis.to snap out of it, Maynard and Billy had to juggle conflicting schedules, parental obligations, other bands, one book project and, well, the way in which life sometimes sends two people on different paths. One man is currently contending with the bewildering, terrifying state of the world today; the other is exhausted from producing music that can do that subject justice.
We pick up the trail of that first path in Arizona, where Maynard is having a bad day. In fact, you could call it a shitter.
Picture this, if you will: it’s 7am and Maynard James Keenan is stood on snow-blushed Arizona soil staring at a gigantic concrete egg.the man in the truck who is delivering it to Maynard’s winery is devouring breakfast in his seat, seeing one of the most acclaimed rock vocalists of all time in something of a perturbed state through his windshield. Maynard explains the situation to us.
“A 5,000-pound concrete egg – a wine tank – showed up, and I don’t have a forklift that lifts 5,000 pounds. Mine stops at 4,800,” he says.“that poor bastard’s sitting in a truck eating an Egg Mcmuffin while he’s waiting for us to scramble and get our shit together.”
If this constitutes something of a logistical problem for Maynard, he can at least take comfort in the fact that he’s tackled worse. In order to record A Perfect Circle’s latest album – while work on Tool’s fifth full-length remains ongoing – for the first time ever Maynard cancelled his usual Christmas holiday, typically spent in Arizona or with his extended family in Michigan. Instead he headed to LA to focus on finishing Eat The Elephant.as far as wider problems go, however, few things could hold a candle to the apocalyptic subject matter he is engaging with on A Perfect Circle’s new record.
In many ways Maynard is the first to admit he has changed over the years.when K! caught up with him in 2016 while on duty with Puscifer, he was not the unassailable, acid-tongued frontman of legend – he was open, funny and self-deprecating, even decrying his own conformity to “douchebag” artists that draw you in with mysterious art then push you away when you show interest. One constant, however, is that – be it with A Perfect Circle,tool or Puscifer – Maynard never reveals what his intriguing lyrics are about. It’s just part of why he’s one of rock’s most enigmatic presences.that said, he insists there is a trail of breadcrumbs on this record for fans to follow.
“A lot of times the conversation is hidden right in the title,” he offers.“you can digest the song itself and the lyrics on your own, but usually the title kind of gives you a clue of where to dig.”
Taking this and running with it, K! notes one of Eat The Elephant’s standout tracks:the Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy-referencing So Long,and Thanks For All The Fish.when Maynard hears that selection of words he lets out an elongated “yeeeeeeees” and repeats the song’s name slowly. If this is a sign of his pride – and it should be – it is justified by a soaring track about humanity racing towards its own destruction, featuring a range of pop culture references (including the death of Carrie Fisher via a nod to Princess Leia). Unlike any other APC song, it sounds upbeat but is riven with tragedy: imagine someone dancing gracefully, silhouetted against the blinding light of a nuclear explosion and you’d be close. Last time around, Maynard told Kerrang! he is prone to finding humour in the darkest situations, but you have to wonder if that has been tested by headlines of recent months.
“Yeah, no shit!” he laughs.“there’s only so many Saturday Night Live sketches you can watch to kind of take the pressure off.”
Maynard insists his comedic backbone is holding strong, and that while there’s “tongue-in-cheek doom and gloom, there’s still hope” on APC’S new album. Still, judging from some of the incensed lyrics of Talktalk and the venomous schadenfreude of Delicious, you have to wonder if he has given up on humanity altogether…
“It all comes down to perspective, doesn’t it?” he says.“if you can step back far enough and hear the voices of prior generations, how many times have we been in a situation we’re just convinced the world was over in the last 6-8,000 years? I’m sure there’s many instances where we thought, ‘We’re done – this is it.’ Then we kind of wiggle out of the turmoil and into the light. Somehow. At least temporarily. I think there’s hope, but the problem is balancing what your version of hope is. [When] you have a disgusting turd for a president – did I say that out loud? – you have to look at how something like that happened.”
Maynard stops himself before he disappears “down a rabbit hole”. In 2018 he says he is wrestling with a world governed by a “Portlandia mentality” – where everyone acts, as in that comedy sketch show, as morbid exaggerations of any given stereotype, be it politicians or bohemians. He turns to Star Wars to explain the balance he is looking for in life.while he preferred Rogue One to The Last Jedi (FYI), something resonated with him in the form of Kylo Ren and Rey.
“You have two characters who have the perfect yin-yang proportion of dark and light in them,” he begins.“now you’re striking a balance, now you have me.we don’t have balance right now. Everything’s polarised extremes without having the yin-yang element in place where even as dark as you might be, you might have that dot of light in you, and as light as you may be, you might have a little dot of dark in you.”
At least as a lyricist, Maynard has found his balance in Billy and the incredible layered, atmospheric sounds he produces.the story, as outlined in Sarah Jensen’s 2016 Maynard biography, A Perfect Union Of Contrary Things, is that Billy – then a guitar tech for Tool – was playing some of his own material when Maynard liked what he heard. And so A Perfect Circle was born.
Yet the story goes back even further, and it starts with Maynard giving Billy an intense stare he will never forget…
“My first impression?” begins Billy Howerdel, sat reflecting in the LA mastering suite.“i was concerned.”
This is how Billy recalls the first time he saw Maynard. It happened while the singer was performing onstage with Tool at Hollywood’s Club Lingerie. Maynard had no idea he was eyeballing his future musical co-conspirator, but he certainly left an impression on him.
“I remember Maynard being onstage, staring, and it happened to be right where I was,” he tells K!. “I thought,‘is this guy staring at me or what?’ I got out of the way eventually and I said,‘oh no, he’s just deadlocked on something.’ I don’t know what it was. Maybe it was an ex-girlfriend he was pissed at, but maybe it was just a spot on the wall. I was like,‘what is going on with this guy?’ He just never
broke character – his presence was so intense.”
Billy would soon welcome this intensity into his life as a permanent fixture.as a guitar tech for Fishbone – who took Tool out on a European tour – they spent a lovely time together with “no air-conditioning in a crappy bus for a month”. It all precipitated Maynard eventually hearing Billy’s own music – the rich, atmospheric rock that now comes branded under the A Perfect Circle moniker.while he has still been plying his trade during APC’S bouts of inactivity with his Ashes Divide project – not to mention raising two children – he is unequivocal when asked if he felt APC’S absence deeply in the intervening years.
“I missed it a lot,” are the simple words he gives that seem to bear a lot of weight. He explains that, when it came to A Perfect Circle getting back together, Maynard “reached out, knowing I would be ready to go when the time was right.”
A Perfect Circle, you see, is as close to Billy’s heart as one could realistically expect anything to be – a gift he was given.
“I never really thought I would become a musician,” he recalls today. “But I knew I spent a lot of time – probably too much time – listening to it and obsessing on it.”
Billy is a soft-spoken man, but his voice becomes charged with excitement as he talks about his love of Elvis Costello, and how dark music from the UK such as Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Cure, Echo And The Bunnymen and Killing Joke informed his vision for APC. For many years of Billy’s career, he has been someone living on the sidelines of rock as a guitar tech – he watched on from the wings as he worked with some of the greatest bands ever, from Nine Inch Nails to Smashing Pumpkins and Guns N’ Roses. It taught him a lot of lessons.
“Professionalism, work ethic and also what not to do,” offers Billy.“there were a lot of downfalls you could see bands going through. I didn’t get in it for the drugs and the girls; I got in it because I love being around music.who I learned the most from was probably Trent Reznor. He only expects as much as he could do himself, and he can do a lot.that’s a high bar. I just tried to keep up.”
Arguably, Billy has been striving for that high bar ever since. It perhaps explains why he has been so forensically absorbed in working on Eat The Elephant. He is, he says, not normally this scattered or exhausted; he ingests his magnesium supplements every day and he meditates, yet Eat The Elephant has still taken its toll on him.to get the music for lead single The Doomed off the ground, for instance, he stayed awake for a day and a half. Billy says he’s never subscribed to the notion that “you need to suffer for great art”, but somewhere along the line, perhaps subconsciously, it seems he was living that out. He’s learned a lot about himself this time around.
“I wonder how much I want to say,” he pauses. “I’ll say this.the stress that’s associated with making a record – having an extreme deadline where you’re putting your stamp on it – it’s a fine line you draw, caring so much that it is bad for your health. For me, I wanted it to be everything it could be. It’s hard not to get physically worn down from it.when you get to that place where you’re not sleeping, and you can barely think straight, that’s when you go,‘god, did I need to push it that hard? Or was it necessary?’”
Yet Eat The Elephant is not just the product of hard(est) work: it is the product of an extremely unique musical friendship. In a band that has had so many line-ups [see panel over the page], there is a reason why Billy and Maynard have remained the only two constants in A Perfect Circle. But this does not come without its cuts and bruises…
Spend a bit of time speaking to Maynard James Keenan and Billy Howerdel and it is relatively easy to detect their surface similarities. Cryogenic jokes aside, they both take A Perfect Circle extremely seriously. Both are intelligent, articulate and share a mutual love of PJ Harvey and Massive Attack. Similarly, both are cautious not to wrap their songs in too many explanatory words or superlatives, and are equally protective of their personal lives – “There’s public life and private life,” Billy explains at one point in the interview. They find a lot to admire in each other. Maynard is not necessarily an easy man to please musically; he even points out to K! what so many guitarists, drummers and bass players forget.“your sound is not some external gear,” he says.“or your haircut.your sound is what happens when you physically pick up that instrument.” To that end, Maynard hears something very special when Billy picks up a guitar – a sound naturally issuing from his bandmate that makes him want to start telling stories. Billy, too, says Maynard has made a huge impact on his life. “The great thing in the beginning was it was the musical diary of my whole life coming into focus in 2000 for our first record,” he explains.“having Maynard made it so much better, so much more than it ever could have been, like if you have a sketchbook you’ve been drawing in for 10 years and having a great painter come and bring it to life.”
“MAYNARD GETS ME OUT OF MY COMFORT ZONE. AND THAT COMES WITH CUTS…” ● BILLY HOWERDEL ●
His admiration extends from those early days right up until the present with Eat The Elephant. Maynard’s vocals and lyrics are something of a moving goalpost for Billy’s creativity.
“It just makes whatever thing I’m doing that I find mediocre have to step up to his level,” he explains.“when I hear what he presents, it puts the fire up my ass to up my game.what he brought to this record, I think it’s some of my favourite Maynard vocals I’ve heard on any of his projects.”
But when it came to the pair reconvening after so much time apart, both will note the changes from yesteryear. “We haven’t done an album in 14 years,” says Maynard.“he was probably thinking things were going to go the way they used to, and I was going to respond to sounds the way I used to.we really had to come up with a new language for each other.”
Maynard hails co-producer Dave Sardy for helping them find the middle ground that resulted in such a brilliant album, but he also points out that there’s a lot of material the world will never hear. Sometimes A Perfect Circle have their imperfect moments when Maynard’s lyrical vision and Billy’s musical foundation don’t align.
“There’s a lot of songs that will never see the light of day because there’s nothing in them that inspires me and I don’t hear a story in them,” Maynard says.“it might take me years to find it. I might not be in the right place to hear it…”
It’s always fascinating to hear how bands communicate that to each other… “Or don’t communicate,” he laughs.“wheeee.” How do you tell Billy if a song’s not working for you?
“There’s no other way to do it other than to be straight and honest and deal with that week of misery.there’s no other way to go about it. Like,‘i’m not hearing what you’re hearing, sorry.’ But the good news is that we wouldn’t be standing here if I didn’t hear it in other things, so, that part you just have to figure out how to let it go.” Billy confesses that the process isn’t always easy. “I feel more creative around Maynard,” he says. “He frustrates me, too. Just like any friend, you
have both sides of it – it’s not just a one-way street. I’m sure I frustrate him in ways, and he frustrates me.and we hopefully inspire each other to move forward and I hopefully get him out of his comfort zone. He certainly gets me out of my comfort zone.and that comes with cuts. It’s not always so easy.you’re hearing it in my voice probably now because we’re at the end of it and it’s time for me to drop and sleep for about a month.”
The songs that you will hear, however, are ones that capture their creative spark in jawdropping fashion.when Eat The Elephant formed, it often did so quickly.when it comes to writing, Maynard says he likes to take a CD –
“Yes, I still use CDS,” he deadpans – and sit in his car and drive around for hours on end listening to the music. He waits for a melody to strike him.
“Normally that process takes a week, a year, 10 years, you know… it could take any amount of time,” he says.“but for some reason these just fell in place.”
The Contrarian, Disillusioned and Eat The Elephant, for example, all came together within 36 hours respectively.a combination of highspeed writing and laborious attention to detail, it’s little wonder Billy struggles to put the record into words now it’s done.
“I’m too in the middle of it [right now],” he laughs.“i’ll listen to the record in three months once I decompress.”
He says he’s hoping to attain the 40,000-foot view of the album they’ve just made, where everything will be clear to him. For now, he just needs some sleep.when he finally does listen back, you expect Billy – as will the rest of the world – will deem A Perfect Circle’s new album as something that was worth the wait.
EAT THE ELEPHANT IS SET FOR RELEASE ON APRIL 20 VIA BMG. A PERFECT CIRCLE PLAY THE UK IN JUNE – SEE THE GIG GUIDE FOR MORE INFO
“BILLY AND I HAD TO COME UP WITH A NEW LANGUAGE FOR EACH OTHER…” ● MAYNARD JAMES KEENAN ●