After a five-year hiatus, A Perfect Circle
have returned to perform a select handful of dates beginning on November 4. What makes their return even more high profile is that the band led by Tool
singer Bernard James Keenan
and powered by the guitars of Billy Howerdel
will be performing one of their three albums in its entirety on each night of the tour. Mer de Noms
, Thirteenth Step
, and eMOTIVe
will be laid out in album chronology and performed to completion.
Guitarist Billy Howerdel
has been spending hours dialing in the tones and effects that were splashed all over the trio of APC records. He has a new guitar rig and wants to make sure everything is perfect. Additionally he's been thinking about releasing some new Ashes Divide
music, the side project he put together when APC were off for those five years from 2005 until the present. He has a lot on his mind and he wants to talk about.
UG: The big news is that A Perfect Circle are back together and touring. Was it simply a matter of It feels right so let's get back together or was it more calculated?
Well, in 2004 when we were on the last tour we talked about what we were gonna do from here. And, um, I was gonna do a solo project and Maynard was gonna do one; his became Puscifer and mine became Ashes Divide. Maynard started a vineyard and obviously still has Tool and there was a lot of things going on especially for Maynard. So when the little window opened up it seemed like the right time and he said, What do you think about doing shows this fall? And I said, Yeah, great, I'll clear my schedule.
When you took that hiatus back in 2004, it was a foregone conclusion that at some point APC would get back together?
Yeah, we always knew we would; we were just lookin' for the right time to do it. We're still throwing ideas back and forth and right now I've given him some song ideas and he's been writing to them. Now it seems like time and we're gonna put something down and we might even be debuting some of those songs at the shows.
Is that right?
Possibly; we're thinking about it.
Then there will be a new APC record coming out?
You know, I don't know. I think the term record kind of frightens some of us. Not me as much; I'm kinda still a little bit of a dinosaur in that respect. I still like the idea of a record; it's kinda how I grew up musically and it still means a lot to me. But as far as how these songs will be released, they might be released in a different fashion. A little bit more of an EP or a limited release and then come together as some kind of collection towards the end. Almost like a photo album would be: you're putting them in this photo album to collect and then maybe there's a different version of them later on. We'll see. The exciting thing is we don't have a record deal; we don't have any commitments or responsibilities to anyone else and we can kinda do what we like to do as far as that goes. And that feels really good. For both A Perfect Circle and for Ashes Divide; it's got a lot of possibilities.
For the tour, APC will be recreating one of the three studio albums on each night. You'll either break out Mer de Noms, Thirteenth Step, or eMOTIVe. What made you decide to approach the music in this fashion?
We talked about doing this for a while and now that we have upcoming shows it's, OK, let's do that thing we talked about which is do all three records. We never toured the eMOTIVe record; this will be the first time we're doing any of those songs live. For the most part they're covers but to be honest, most of them are pretty original, uh
Arrangements, yeah. So, we're excited to kind of tackle that challenge of How are we gonna pull this record off live? And also deciding to do the rest of the record verbatim. Not verbatim as far as the way the songs were done but the order and how many songs there are. It's gonna be cool to do the whole Mer de Noms set and the whole Thirteenth Step set.
Have you gotten down to any rehearsals yet?
We've done some early rehearsals with our new bass player, Matt McJunkins, Josh Freese [drummer] and I. The three of us have gotten together and just kind of ran through the first record and half of Thirteenth Step and it's awesome to play. We're all kind of beaming across the room and it's like, This is great, man. Because we've all been excited to do it for so long. Josh calls me all the time [and says] When are we gonna get to play? When are we gonna do this? So, yeah, we're all really excited to do it. I don't know if the fans are gonna be more excited than we are to be up there playing and stuff.
Revisiting the music in this fashion must bring back memories of when you originally recorded the songs and what you played and what tones you had dialed in.
"We always knew we would get back together; we were just lookin' for the right time to do it."
Yeah, and in classic fashion of me like driving everybody nuts around me, I'm kinda re-ripping all these songs apart. And the biggest thing is I could have just dusted off the old rig and brought it out and played it again. But I'm redoing my entire guitar rig and James Iha's [guitarist] rig and Matt's rig. So I've been working hundreds of hours on reprogramming everything I had in my two 16-space racks an A and a B rack that I brought out with all this kind of older, cryptic stuff. And now putting it into this one piece of gear, this Fractal Audio, this Axe-Fx Ultra I guess it is. So I'm kind of redoing every song and there's gonna be 40 songs; at least 38 songs that we're playing on this tour [but I] think it's 40. It's a lot, it's a lot to do to go back and revisit. I mean I'm literally going back and listening to the stems of what I played from 1999 on and it's like, Wow.
Are you surprised by what you're hearing?
It's funny once you record a record, you kind of have to let go of it and then it doesn't feel like it belongs to me anymore. It's kinda cool like when you let go of everything and it just becomes written in stone of what it is and then going back and listening to like the raw tracks of it. It's like, Wow, OK, this is kinda cool. I was really proud of some of the stuff that we had done on those records and on the guitar stuff I was kinda like, Wow, I did that? OK, cool.
You're able to recreate all those more organic guitar tones that were created on those various older pieces of gear on this single Fractal Audio box?
Yeah; absolutely. There's very little compromise that I have from making my rack this massive, behemoth thing down to just one two-rack space piece of gear. The other stuff was great and it sounded great but I had backup after backup because it's an EPROM [erasable programmable read-only memory] and the circuit board would go out because it was so sensitive to the electric or whatever was next to it. If it was sitting next to a lighting tower it was just too crazy. With Ashes Divide I brought these things out on the road and used em and they're really great. So now tackling the APC stuff and revisiting all the atmospheres and all the stuff is pretty daunting but it's fun.
As you've been diving back into the music, does any one record strike you as being more difficult to recreate than the other?
I've done a light programming of the first two; I haven't tackled eMOTIVe too much yet and that's gonna be interesting. I mean that record is more interesting in that I'll be playing not just guitar on that night; there will be more keys and other kinds of acoustic instruments that I'll be playing on that. So as far as like dialing in sounds, Mer de Noms has some really interesting guitar sounds that I'm trying to get back. I worked for six straight hours and got two-and-a-half songs done [laughs.] It takes a while; it's like three, four hours a song to get it really, really done. But like I said, I'm listening back to that stuff and going, Wow. I'm trying to make it even better than any tour we've done. Like the sounds before I was always happy with but this new processor has a lot of possibilities so I'm just trying to take advantage of that. And say, I could really get close to what the records sounded like.
Do you think your love for guitar tones and ambient washes and that type of thing came from your work as a guitar tech for various bands? Being around Slash in Guns N Roses, Fishbone, Tool, and Nine Inch Nails must have been eye-opening for you in terms of watching these great players creating unique guitar sounds.
Yeah. The desire came before that but the level of quality of the bands that I worked for, that bar got raised up pretty far. That's what was interesting: I had a lot of great bands that I worked for and I was the guitar tech you'd call for complicated rigs. In today's standard it would be easier because things are a little bit more compact. In the 90s when you had a big rig, you'd have these literally huge things with hundreds of connections inter-connecting a lot of different things. I liked that challenge. To me it wasn't about just hanging out partying with the band. It was about pushing the envelope of technology and trying to get what it takes to make it sound as compelling as possible for the guitar. And make sure the guitar player didn't have to think about the guitar. They could just get up there and play and then they could be surprised. I'm kinda always looking for that guitar tech who took it as serious as I did which is probably not gonna happen because I was a complete geek. You didn't need to tell me to do something; I would just wanna go out and make it as good as it could possibly be and as foolproof as it could possibly be. I really had a lot of passion for my job and I really liked being a guitar tech.
Obviously that passion was translated into seeking out the coolest guitar tones with you began working on your own original music projects.
That carried over into when I started making my own records. I mean it was there. I got to experience a lot of different things and see what was the best of the best out there. If I could afford it, I went for it. I was lucky enough to work with Nine Inch Nails on their Downward Spiral tour and I learned just a lot about the quality of music from that tour. The show was exciting and what it really meant to be in a war zone and survive it on stage.
What was it like watching Adam Jones in Tool when you were working on the Aenima tour? Certainly Tool's music must have rubbed off on you regarding what you'd ultimately do with APC and even Ashes Divide.
Of course; I was a big Tool fan and Adam is a great player. He's a simple, brilliant player I would say is the best way to describe what he does. It's very familiar when you hear a lot of his songs; they kinda have a familiar feel to them. It has an immediacy that grabs you but there's a lot of passion there. I've always responded to players who play less and have more to say with those simple notes. I think a lot of people can subscribe to that kind of a thing. It's almost like if you really want someone to listen to what you have to say, you whisper it in their ear. If you scream it you're gonna turn em off. And I think it kind of goes to that sort of mentality of you don't have to break somebody's brain with how many notes you can play. It's really just the right note at the right time and the right rhythm and feel. And Tool certainly always had that: the perfect amount of aggression and subtlety that obviously has made them the monster that they are today.
You were attracted to guitar players who weren't necessarily the speed demon types?
The stuff I listened to heavily and what made me get into guitar are kind of two different things but they came together in songwriting. What made me wanna pick up the guitar honestly was Randy Rhoads.
Is that right?
Yeah, it was really that. I was into dark wave music back in like the 80s when I was growing up. I was more into Killing Joke, Dead Kennedys, and Elvis Costello on the lighter side and the Cure and Echo and the Bunnymen. Things like that. I liked weird textures and I listened to Missing Persons. I'll butcher his name and pronunciation if you can fix it: Warren Cuccurullo.
That's pretty close.
"The exciting thing is we don't have a record deal; we don't have any commitments or responsibilities to anyone else and we can kinda do what we like to do as far as that goes."
So those kind of things were interesting for me to listen to but it was when I really heard Randy Rhoads [that I wanted to pick up a guitar.] My friend Rob, one of my best friends, he played guitar and I'd just sit in his room listen to him playing guitar just plugged straight into an amp. And he's like a shredder guy and it was just so interesting that he could sit and keep my attention for that long. And I was like, I should give this a try and I literally borrowed a crappy guitar from my uncle and then went and bought my first guitar two weeks later and that was it.
You were bitten?
I sat and practiced for eight hours a day everyday. I got home from high school and locked myself in the basement and played guitar until I could pull off those first two Ozzy Osbourne records. And then from there I realized, Oh, shit, I've learned too much. I've gotta forget all that stuff and get to the music that I think is really interesting. Like the Cure and things like that.
There was a divide between straight up guitar and compositional influences.
Yeah. As far as songwriting goes it kinda went back to things like Cocteau Twins and the sound that was 4AD [English record label that featured bands like Bauhaus, Dead Can Dance and Throwing Muses.] Atmospheric and kind of this ethereal thing that wasn't necessarily super pop structured but had more of an emotional element than a bombastic energy element to it.
Do you remember the first time you actually met Maynard? If Randy Rhoads loomed large in your development as a guitar player, coming into contact with Maynard certainly affected your entire musical career.
Yeah. I met all the Tool guys in the early 90s. I was teching for a band called Fishbone and Tool was the opening band for them. I helped those guys out and helped Adam with his guitars and Paul D'Amour, the bass player, with some of his basses and stuff like that. And just became friends with them from there and then I met Maynard at the same time. We were friends and would hang out on days off or whatever sometimes. But not super-close. I became closer with Maynard years later when I kind of bumped into him. I literally went to a bar in Hollywood and bumped into him. I had just broken up with my girlfriend that night and had all of my stuff in the back of my car and literally had nowhere to go. I was gonna go to a hotel and he just said, I got a room you can take in our house and so that was it. It was kinda like fate brought us together one night in the late 90s and then it just kinda progressed from there.
You had been working on your own music and showed him what you were up to?
I was always working on music and he heard what I was working on and somehow he seemed interested. And that's it: we started working on songs and that became A Perfect Circle.
That collaboration culminated on APC's first album, Mer de Noms. Was Judith, the first single, the song that best captured who the band were? This is the piece of music that the fans would initially hear so was it most representative of the other songs on the debut record?
Honestly? No. Judith became the first single and I was shocked. Both Maynard and I didn't want that to be the first single. Not because we thought it was gonna be this big hit and we were scared of that. Honestly it was probably a strategic thing. We had the song 3 Libras that we thought, This is what we want to present ourselves as and come out of the box and be known for this. Because it's kind of easy to be overshadowed by heavy music and, umm, that's kinda what happened in a way. But in no way would I ever go back and change it obviously. People heard Judith and thought it could be a single and were both were scratching our heads saying like, How is that possible? There's not even a chorus in that song when you think about it from a songwriting perspective. It just didn't make any sense to us whatsoever. So sometimes it's good to get an outside perspective. The record company heard it and they were kind of blown away and management.
When you mention outside perspective, had anyone else heard Judith before it was released? Any of your musician friends or Maynard's friends?
I remember Rob Halford from Judas Priest came over our house one time. Maynard was friends with him and invited him over to hear some early tracks. And Judith was one of em and he turned to us and said, That's the one. And we both went, Oh, really? And he goes, I tell you if you release that single first you'll sell a million records off that single alone. And he was right; we had that song on radio and as that song was on radio we sold a million records on that song. It was uncanny how on point he was with that.
You bring up 3 Libras which is sort of the other side of APC with acoustic guitar and strings. Where did those elements in your songwriting come from?
Well it depends. The straight up acoustic stuff I've never been all that into. I don't hate it. But things that took acoustics and juxtaposed them with something a little more harsh was interesting. Not that 3 Libras has that but there was a band called Black Lung that I was really kind of inspired by; just the overall atmosphere of. The Cocteau Twins was another one; it's not necessarily acoustic but it's very ethereal and dreamy kind of guitar and really pretty. And I just always thought that if I could get some of that element that really inspired me with some of the heavier stuff that became some of the foundation of who I became as a player, it would be the way to go. I was looking for this feminine voice to go along with this kind of heavier music that has this pretty element to it. I guess that's where the whole rumor of me wanting to have a female vocalist came from. That's been going around and I kind of get asked about it quite a bit: Why didn't I have a female vocalist from the beginning? And that's really where it came from; I like a lot of female-fronted bands but I'd never heard like a heavy one done really right.
Were you actually listening to any bands with female vocalists when you were working on Mer de Noms?
The first thing I heard as I started working on it was Garbage and I really liked that first Garbage record. I thought it was a really slick production but it was really and I'm not saying that but. It was a really great sounding record; it kind of really jumped out and I loved Shirley Manson's delivery and the whole package was just really interesting to me. It was something that sounded unique and when I heard that I was like, Oh, shit, OK, somebody is onto this too; I gotta get working.
On Thirteenth Step, the second APC record, Weak and Powerless gets released as the initial single and there again that was a pretty strange track. Clean guitars and a bizarre arrangement and this becomes a big hit for the band. Did that take you by surprise?
Yeah, kind of. Again it's hard for you to realize what the single is. You can write things straight up that you know you're trying to copy something that's already been successful. But I've just never necessarily tried to do that or referenced other songs. It just kinda comes from being inspired from a guitar sound. Just getting a new guitar sound up and having that be like, Oh, this is cool and then it makes you play something you wouldn't normally have played before and then it builds upon itself. For me the song gets written through the atmosphere of the song. I just don't sit down and, Oh, I'm looking at the sky and I want to write about the clouds. Everyone has got their process and just for me it comes from shutting my eyes and just going somewhere else. It's an unspoken thing.
By the time you've recorded the Thirteenth Step album, has the writing process with Maynard become more efficient? Do you better understand the types of guitar ideas that he'll respond to?
Kind of. On the first record, on Mer de Noms, for the most part I had a lot of those songs written and pretty well realized. They weren't recorded really well but they were getting there by the time he started working on them. It was easy in the fact that he would just kind of sing to the arrangement that was there; we changed very little to accommodate Maynard. Working with Tool, he's used to cracking the ultimate riddle of music; their music is extremely complex and I hear their demos sometimes and I hear what he puts to it and I think it's amazing. I don't know how he fits what he does over what I heard. Now that I've got some singing experience under my belt with Ashes Divide and writing and being the sole lyricist and writing melodies, I can't imagine how he does that. I guess he just rises to the challenge but it's not to be underestimated of how difficult that task is.
So working with the material you were presenting to Maynard on the Thirteenth Step album wasn't any kind of problem for him?
"We're still throwing ideas back and forth and right now I've given him some song ideas and he's been writing to them."
As far as with APC, the Mer de Noms stuff was written and he sang on it. On Thirteenth Step it got a little bit more collaborative and a little bit more of a journey that we took trying to make that record. We didn't really know where it was gonna go whereas with Mer de Noms they knew what that record sounded like before almost Maynard got involved to a point. It didn't sound the same, it wasn't near as good and it wasn't fully realized but I knew about where it was going. With Thirteenth Step it was all up in the air and it kinda came together towards the end of how this record is going to sound aesthetically.
As a singer do you bring in melodies to Maynard? Is that how it happened on Mer de Noms?
Yeah. I had Judith and Three Libras and some others.
Was The Hollow presented to Maynard with a vocal melody?
I had a different melody; I wanted something lofty and long kind of noted and he just went from that and took it and did it. He didn't hear any particular melody but just took a few adjectives and turned it into something living and breathing. It's pretty amazing.
You actually sang a bit on the Mer de Noms record. You sing that part on Judith.
Yeah, I sing backup on a bunch of songs. And that song Renholder which is kinda like a weirdo track with some kind of hidden meaning words [laughs.] Yeah, I sing on every record for sure but as far as lead vocals, I started doing lead vocals on the third record on eMOTIVe; I sang three songs on that record.
On eMOTIVe, the third album, the band interprets all those cover songs. Did you ever think that in covering such an iconic track as Imagine, for example, that you were treading on hallowed ground as it were?
You know on Imagine I never felt that pressure; I'd heard other people talking about it. I remember people in our band saying, We might catch some flak for this [but] I didn't think that. I didn't care. I didn't care in a belligerent way; we're making an interpretation of it and we had a few references we went towards of how we were gonna approach that song.
What were those references? Did you go back and listen to the original songs?
No, I can't remember listening to any of these songs before or during [when we were] working on them. I found out later that on Freedom of Choice I had the words completely wrong; I couldn't even remember what the chorus was on it. I guessed what the best guess was; I hadn't heard the song in a long time. As far as Imagine, Portishead was one that came out as a bit of a go to and Massive Attack; more things to get the coloring and less about the structure of like picking a particular song. It was more about the vibe of it and That might be interesting to go towards as a reinterpretation of this song. As far as Imagine, I like the way it came out and it's pretty intricate. It's probably a little more true to form to the original than other songs on the record. Because there are other ones that just have nothing to do whatsoever [with the original.] Well, I don't know; maybe not.
Was the Ashes Divide record a completely different experience than working on the APC records. With Ashes Divide you're the man in charge and not really working within the band framework. They're completely separate from one another?
Yeah, it definitely is. It was a real struggle like just writing music and then concentrating on being a lyricist and having to be responsible for every word that's said. It was daunting to me especially coming from Maynard who I hold in such high regard. To have music that is similar-sounding to him was gonna be really daunting to me. I knew it was gonna be critically looked at by fans and critics. And then eventually I got nervous about it and whatever and you start second-guessing and I would just go forward and do it. And not worry just, Alright, just let it go; what can I do? I put my best effort forward and I'm proud and happy with the way it came out. I think it's truly me as a musician; it just happened to be who I was in 2008 and that's what came out.
Might there be a second Ashes Divide record?
Yeah, I definitely plan on releasing more music for Ashes and hopefully on the sooner side. Getting maybe an EP or some early versions that will be on the next Ashes record will come out this winter when I go do some shows. I'd like to do some club shows in select cities around the States and go some places I haven't been.
Interview by Steven Rosen