Deep in the indie 90s, Billy Howerdel – then working as a guitar tech for Tool – played some of his esoteric demos for their frontman Maynard James Keenan. Howardel wanted to form a band with a female singer and delve into the indie hard rock underground in an epic and atmospheric way, but Keenan said, “I can hear myself singing these songs”. In 1999 the duo formed A Perfect Circle and now, after a 14 year break from recording, they return with Eat The Elephant, an astonishing collection that is startlingly modern whilst still sounding obviously A Perfect Circle, writes SHANE PINNEGAR.
Having been touring on and off since 2010, why was now the right time to release an album?
You know, logistically, it worked out. Maynard’s a very, very busy man – he’s got three bands and a family and a winery, and so trying to find a hole in his schedule is not the easiest thing – [it] has to be a big enough hole to do a whole album campaign. So for whatever reasons, the stars aligned and here we are.
Will you be touring the album worldwide?
Oh yeah. We’re gonna do some more in The States, we’re going over to Europe in June, and then we’re gonna probably, a year from now I would keep an eye out for us [in Australia], maybe even a little sooner than that.
Exciting. This being the first Perfect Circle album in 14 years, I believe there were a lot of questions asked between the two of you about where you should pick up musically, and it doesn’t sound like you consciously said, “let’s try to sound like we used to…”
For me, musically, A Perfect Circle is the first band I was ever in, so it was just the music I had written my whole life. So, whether there’s 14 years between albums, or two, if I’m just gonna be true to myself, I think the record is gonna sound like APC, but production and aesthetics change over time and different influences and who we are as people is gonna be enough of a change for it to be, hopefully, a fresh approach. We do try and stretch and grow and not sit back and make the same record. I think aggressive timelines can help that too; set a deadline and stick to it and not sit there second guessing what it should be. We’re just like, “okay, we’ve got work to do, let’s do it.”
I believe that Maynard is not very forthcoming on what certain songs and the album title mean. Do you guys talk about that sort of thing?
Not really… some of it we do. Some of it, honestly, I don’t pry. He’s offering it up for all of us to consume, so it’s up to all of us to interpret and see what the songs are. We’ve kind of let them go, where they’re released into the world now. It’s the rest of our job to interpret. I felt like that even with Ashes Divide, with my own project. Once it was done, I kind of tried to let go of where the song came from – because it becomes too singular. I think music can be more abstract than that and becomes bigger when it becomes a little more loose in its interpretation.
That’s a really interesting attitude to have, it implies that despite it having your name on it, you don’t need to know the ins and outs of every single little bit of it…
Yeah. I guess it’s like, there’s pride that’s attached to it but if you’re an architect and you built this incredible building and now this incredible business is going on there and this culture’s emerged from it, yeah, someone with a big ego could take responsibility, and say they created this new wave of artists that live in this building. At the end of the day, you’re just a piece of the puzzle, a piece of the human experience that comes together. I look at art in the same kind of way. We’re proud of what we’ve done but now it goes somewhere further than just exactly what it was when I crafted it in my bedroom however many years ago.
So I guess that makes you creator and consumer in a way…
Yeah, in a way. I haven’t even listened to this record to be honest, yet. The only time I’ve listened to it, which is many times, is for critical analysis, to get the sequence of the record, when we’re working on it obviously, and then mixing, and balancing, mastering. But I haven’t sat with it driving around or laying on the beach with my eyes closed. I’m too focused right now on trying to re-purpose these songs for the live show, so they’re taking on a new life. Because live is gonna be a different interpretation. And someday I’ll have enough distance – maybe in a couple months I’ll put on the record and take it from there. But for now I’m just doing these interviews and reflecting upon how the experience was making it.
You have said about Maynard, and I quote, “at the end of the day, I’m in service to inspire him and bring his best to the table.” It sounds like you’re very much in awe of his talent and want to facilitate that as best you can?
Sure. Yeah. I think he’s brilliant at what he does. I feel very fortunate to be in a band with a guy that can convey things in a way that I don’t hear anyone else doing. I think that Maynard has a unique voice, and also is so prolific, but just ages well through his career. Whether it was four years into it, or 10 years or 20, he still cranks out better and better material as time goes on. I just think some of his best vocals I’ve ever heard him do on any project are on this record. I think the vocals on Disillusioned are some of the best he’s ever done.
It is an amazing album. And with his vocals so strong here, is that the reason why you chose not to sing on this album at all?
There wasn’t a direct choice. One of the reasons I would sing in the past is just to give a different colour when it was needed or just to have some kind of identity other than the singular vocalist. All the other records I engineered and produced, so I had my hands on every single aspect. This time, [I would be] working with the producer Dave Sardy, and then Maynard would work with Matt Mitchell, and Matt would track him over at his place… we weren’t really in the room with him. He was covering so many sonic bases and so many voices on his own that it just, at the end of the day it didn’t seem like there was a need to go there. He was on such a roll. It’s like when you see someone who is in complete flow, you don’t get in their way.
It obviously works, but it’s an interesting way of recording an album – rather than sitting in a studio face to face and having ideas bouncing back and forth. Does that feed into the end result a bit more, being a bit more detached?
I don’t know. I’d prefer it the other way. But then again he might have been in a place of discovery that he wouldn’t [have been] with me. I think we went down great roads in the past but for whatever reason, it just works both ways with him. He got stuff done working with me in the past, he got great stuff working with Matt or on his own. It’s just, you never know, cos you can’t go recreate the past, whatever it was.