It’s been 20 years since former Tool guitar tech Billy Howerdel presented some of his songs to Tool singer Maynard James Keenan, with the latter so impressed that he offered to sing in Howerdel’s band. Thus was born A Perfect Circle, releasing the Mer de Noms debut album in 2000.
That album, and the following Thirteenth Step (2003) and Emotive (2004), saw A Perfect Circle’s fan base grow as the band shed any initial reputation as a Tool spinoff. While Keenan was and is clearly the high-profile draw in APC, he has always maintained that this is Howerdel’s project. Still, getting people to listen wasn’t always easy. Tool fans are a rabid bunch.
Musicians as prestigious as James Iha (Smashing Pumpkins) and Paz Lenchantin (Zwan, now of The Pixies) came and went, as A Perfect Circle cemented a solid standing as a fascinating alt-rock proposition. So it came as a surprise in 2005 when they decided to take a break. Maybe it shouldn’t have; all of the members have been busy with other projects. Indeed, Howerdel founded Ashes Divide that same year. Yet five years later, in 2010, Howerdel and Keenan found each other again.
“Maynard and I set out to do some other solo projects separately,” Howerdel says. “We started talking about it right after the last tour in 2004. We gave each other about a year, and then there were just little things in between. There was sort of a chance meeting at this video game conference — E3 2010. Maynard was performing ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’ He called me up and asked me if I wanted to be involved with that— getting back onstage together and playing with the unusual context of performing with the L.A. Philharmonic at Staples Center. It was a surreal moment, and I think it dawned on both of us that it was fun, performing together again in front of people. So we started doing shows again in 2010.”
In April, A Perfect Circle released Eat the Elephant, the band’s first album of new material in 14 years. Howerdel concedes that the group has evolved in that time, though he is keen to let the music speak for itself.
“It’s hard for me to put it into words, and it’s life experience as much as musical taste.” he says. “We all evolve and change, and it’s all represented in this musical diary.”
Howerdel says that, when writing songs, he comes up with the music and sends it to Keenan, who then writes the lyrics. From his own perspective, he’s been inspired of late simply by challenging himself.
“It was kind of inspiring putting the guitar down some years ago and picking up the keyboard,” Howerdel says. “Purposely putting the guitar down to get out of muscle memory and habits. That was the first thing that changed — that was 2014. I did feel like we had a false start because we almost did a record back then. We did some touring in 2010, 2011 and 2013, and after the tour, I started writing more music. I kept working on stuff here and there. I also just scored my first movie and then things came together a little bit. Scoring that movie helped the flow on this record as well. Writing in service to this music that people have been working on for a long time — you’re in service to the director’s vision. Trying to do it justice was a new experience for me. The working title is D-Love.”
Howerdel says his favorite song on the new album is “The Contrarian,” mainly because of Keenan’s vocal performance.
“A song could be just an interesting side note and his vocals could hit me over the head,” he says. “Something very unexpected. I guess I don’t have an expectation usually of what it could sound like, but that one just surprised me. It was interesting.”
As is usually the case, Howerdel played nearly everything on the album, with other musicians coming in to tour. Iha is back with the Pumpkins on their reunion tour, so Greg Edwards of Failure has been with APC since last year.
“Matt McJunkins played bass on a couple of songs,” Howerdel says. “The approach I’ve always had with APC is I’m writing it as I’m playing it. It’s written on the second or third pass. It’s hard to go back and re-track.”
Though Howerdel is a Jersey guy, APC are considered an L.A. band and the multi-instrumentalist is looking forward to their hometown show this week, even if it does present what he refers to as a “guest list challenge.” He also says the new album will be well represented in the set.
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“I think that this record honestly shines much brighter live than it does on the record,” he says. “I think we’re on show nine or 10 now, and I feel like we’re well oiled. It’s certainly the best lighting production we ever had. I think it’s the best set we ever played. There are some tours when you just compromise as to what we can do. I’m proud to present this show in every way — the sound and lights. And I don’t always say that — I’m a shitty salesperson. I’m going out on a limb.”
When the tour is over, from Dec. 20, the musicians will break apart and return to their other projects. No date is yet set for an APC return, but it’s certain to happen eventually.
“We’ve talked about it,” Howerdel says. “As I’m putting songs on my hard drive, in folders, I have some for APC and some for Ashes Divide. I never know, though. I give Maynard a look before I really dive into Ashes and see what he thinks. It’s an interesting situation, trying to pick songs for different bands.”
A Perfect Circle play at 8 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 17, at the Honda Center.