An Interview with Billy Howerdel of A Perfect Circle - April 14th, 2011
Interview and Howerdel photos by Mike Bax
In the fall of last year, A Perfect Circle (Maynard James Keenan; Billy Howerdel; James Iha; Matt McJunkins; Josh Freese) surprised everyone by reforming and touring a few live dates up the West Coast and playing material from their first two albums, Mer de Noms and Thirteenth Step. This summer the band will do another run of live shows, including a Toronto stop for Edgefest on July 9th at Downsview Park.
Rumours of new APC studio material are popping up online and bode well for a fourth studio album. These are exciting times for fans who thought the band had packed things in right after eMOTIVe was released in 2004.
While Maynard (Tool) seems to attract the lion’s share of attention for his involvement in APC, the music and lead guitaring in the band is primarily driven by Howerdel. His standout guitar work in studio and on stage is utterly amazing.
As a touring band, APC functions as a showcase of talent with James Iha (Smashing Pumpkins) Matt McJunkins (Ashes Divide) and Josh Freese (Nine Inch Nails) taking the stage with Maynard and Billy this summer.
Howerdel took a bit of time out of his schedule to talk with Lithium Magazine about this summer’s tour and what’s going on with both APC and Ashes Divide.
Mike: A Perfect Circle (APC) lay dormant for five years, Billy. What prompted last year’s tour dates and this year’s broader run of live shows?
Billy: Our schedules aligned. That’s about as simple as it gets, I guess. Maynard found some time between the three bands he’s in, along with a winery, to fit it back into his schedule. I was all for it when he gave the go-ahead, so here we are.
Mike: Was APC ever considered to be over? Or was it always a hiatus?
Billy: We always talked like we would reconvene after we did some other things, which became Puscifer and Ashes Divide. We always kind of had that intention.
Mike: After 2005, what was rumoured to be your solo project turned into Ashes Divide, an album you created in the studio mostly by yourself.
Mike: Do you consider that Ashes Divide album your solo work?
Billy: Yeah, I would say so. I mean, it was a different experience having to handle the duties of writing the music, lyrics, and performing all of the vocals. It was a daunting task for me at the beginning, trying to figure out how to switch hats like that – going from just taking care of the music (APC) to doing everything.
Mike: From the outside looking in, APC seems to be a largely collaborative thing. Is that how you see yourself, as a collaborator?
Billy: Yeah, there is collaboration that happens. It kind of started off in a similar way, being my solo project. I got Maynard involved and it kind of became a different thing. He sang vocals over some music that I needed some vocals on. I was looking for a singer for a lot of material. As the albums went on, we collaborated more and more. It’s just kind of a growing collaborative process.
Mike: Do you ever long for a band, in the sense of five firm members, who always do everything together musically? Do you consider A Perfect Circle your band seeing as it has appreciated a floating roster of musicians?
Billy: Even more than that, it’s about timing. It was always set up to be when Maynard had time. He’s in Tool, and he’s always going to be in Tool, and that was just the way A Perfect Circle was set up - learning how to tour between holes in his schedule. But yes, I would prefer to have it a more full time thing. I went into this fully knowing what the parameters were – they were clearly set ahead of time. I’ve never done anything to try and change or sway those parameters, so the project is what it is. But on an emotional level, yes, I’d love to do the band thing; make a record and do the touring cycle, record again and touring cycle... I’m kind of old-school like that.
Mike: Is there any truth to there being another Ashes Divide album?
Billy: Yes, I’m writing music for both APC and Ashes. Deciding where the songs go has been interesting. I don’t really know what that formula is yet (laughs) I just kind of write, and the writing winds up where it does. I’m writing songs for a release with Ashes. I was actually going to release something this past fall, but when we started talking about reconvening APC I started focusing my attention to that - to take the time and kind of start that machine up again. I even considered doing a run of shows with some new material behind it after this APC summer tour; doing some new Ashes stuff.
Mike: That would be cool. There has been some crossover between members of APC and Ashes divide. I don’t want this to sound like you function under some kind of non-entity band, where there are no permanent members... but I’m wondering if you would consider other members for collaborating with on either project?
Billy: Oh yeah. The way it’s been set up is this… normally I feel like I do my best work on my own. The start of a song I’ll do better work locked in the bedroom working on it myself – figuring out where a song will start and what to throw away or keep. It has to be inspiring for me to keep working on. So I will usually do that routine on my own ahead of time. From there, the collaboration process is really the human element, the musical conversation that happens. You get in a room and you play the notes, and they can be the same notes as my demos, but they take on a different feel when other people get their signature onto them. It’s the same as someone’s voice – it’s unique.
Mike: I wondered how much your demos would actually change once everyone got their personalities into them.
Billy: When Josh came and started doing his drum work it was different – the first drummer on APC was Tim Alexander from Primus. We played a handful of shows, probably about fifteen of them all around Southern California before we got signed and right before A Perfect Circle hit in 1999. Then Josh came on, and it was just different. Here’s two completely different drummers, equally talented, but very different styles – and Josh’s style seemed to fit the music better. It was funny how the band had a different flow and swing to it with Tim playing than Josh. Again, it’s just that musical conversation happening. It’s interesting when you have really good musicians that things can go a lot of different ways in the studio. I take a lot of pride in the material, and I probably micromanage a lot of the stuff in APC – for better or for worse I just found that Josh’s style was just more suited to fitting over the long term with this band. It’s hard not to love what Josh does. That being said, Tim is an amazing drummer. Maynard is lucky enough to work with Tim on Puscifer now.
Mike: You mentioned working an material for both APC and Ashes; does this mean we might see another album from APC?
Billy: There’s new music. We’re not thinking of putting out a record just now, but certainly we are thinking of playing one of these new songs live this summer - maybe more, but right now I feel safe in saying we will be playing a new song.
Mike: I’m old-school; I said album… but with the way things are right now for releasing material, you don’t even need anything physical to get music to your audience.
Billy: I’m still a bit of dinosaur when it comes to an album experience. I'm finding myself even going to the album. I found this the other day actually… I know this isn’t the way everyone else thinks nowadays’… maybe it’s just the muscle memory that I have going on, but I'll find a new band I like, and go to check them out online and if there isn’t a full record there – I often assume there is a full record coming. And I wait for a full release to come out.
Mike: I do the same thing.
Billy: That being said, that is probably what we are going to do on this thing. Release a song and have it stand on its own, and possibly have it come together with a collection of songs at a later date. So I have to kind of think about that in the production stage of this, too. How is this song going to stand on its own? How is it going to be relevant as a body of work when it comes together later as a collection of songs? It's a little bit trickier when you find yourself getting into a bit of groove writing, so I am kind of writing a record, but I’m just not giving it all away right now. Still having that mind, its trickier doing the APC material as a one-off, and having it reflect the time period it was written without it sounding disjointed.
Mike: Do you find it harder to write lyrics; harder than writing/jamming the actual song structures?
Billy: Oh, lyrics are way harder, for me anyway. I can see if you are just talented in that fashion and you have this great flow of ideas… there are lots of different kinds of lyricists out there. I have a harder time with that myself. Listening to my voice on an answering machine was horrifying enough; getting past that feeling and working with what I have took me a long time. Getting over it was a hard for me. I sung backups on a lot of APC stuff, but never really anything to put out there front and centre - singing an album, putting your best foot forward and saying ‘judge me on this now’. It’s a nerve-wracking thing for a musician to go through.
Mike: How different was the writing process between Mer de Noms and Thirteenth Step?
Billy: Mer de Noms, a lot of those songs were pretty complete before I got anyone involved. I’d re-recorded a lot of stuff… Josh wound up playing the drums on it, and in two or three days we just had it all down and knocked it out. That music had been recorded over a long period of time. With Thirteenth Step there was a song or two that had been around for a while, maybe three actually. The song ‘Vanishing’ was supposed to be on Mer de Noms and I literally couldn’t find it. It was one of those files I named incorrectly. I actually named it ‘test’. When I name anything 'test' on my computer that usually means toss it (laughs) I’m usually just testing the microphone or something. So I found the file in 2001 luckily, and just had to change the esthetic of it to match the rest of the work that was becoming Thirteenth Step. So that writing process for that second record was just new for us. I had Maynard on board and I knew he was going to be there so I found myself starting to think about what his input would be on the new songs and try to change them to be more his. If Carole King was my singer some of those songs would be structured differently; it would be a different process. It was quite different from the first album. There was other input on the songs – like the song 'The Noose'. Danny Lohner had a great overall production input into that song. He gave it its arc. That song was kind of an ascendancy, and Maynard came in and added stuff as well. That was a real collaborative effort, that song. ‘The Package’ was really just a simple riff that I had and I played it in the room with everyone and it became a song more by band collaboration.
Mike: You just mentioned Carole King. I’ve read that back when you were starting out, you had considered using female vocals for APC. Did you demo with anyone of the female persuasion?
Billy: Um, not really. I have an ex-girlfriend that sang over some of those songs. It wasn’t a serious offering though. I love Elizabeth Fraser. I’m a big Cocteau Twins fan. I love Concrete Blonde; rewinding a few years to Ashes Divide, we got to work with Johnette Napolitano from Concrete Blonde. I’ve always loved the strong female presence in music. Not that Cocteau Twins have strong vocals, but they are just so esoteric; that beautiful ethereal sound they have. I thought something like that juxtaposed on some harder atmospheric music might mean a nice musical marriage. Maynard knew that going into it and he approached some of the vocals in that kind of way.
Mike: Yeah, I’d agree.
Billy: The long lofty notes in some of those songs are there. I think him knowing where I was originally going, he was able to use that as some inspiration to step outside of the way he looked at Tool material. I don’t think he really wanted to do the same thing twice in working with APC. One of Maynard’s greatest strengths is just not repeating himself exactly and trying to push boundaries. Even if it sounds similar, I think the reason that it still sounds compelling is because he’s trying to see what he can do to make it a responsible creative effort.
Mike: It will be really good to have you back in Toronto this summer for Edgefest (July 9th, Downsview Park TICKETS). I’m very much looking forward to it.
Billy: Thanks, It will be great to be there.
Mike: I believe APC played an Edge event on the first album ten years ago.
Billy: Summersault, that’s right. And with Ashes we did Edgefest in 2008.
Mike: I was there for that. Seeing you live was a highlight of that afternoon. I think that was the only stop in Toronto Ashes Divide made.
Billy: No, we didn’t come back. We did very little touring for that album. We just did that summer run. It was just such a grim time in the economy. (chuckles) It was kind of hard to keep going.
Mike: I have always thought of APC as a kind of supergroup. From the onset, the line-up and music was interesting. Seeing you open the Fragility (NIN) tour before Mer de Noms was released, totally blew me away. To date, it was one of the most impressive opening band experiences I have ever seen. It felt like APC skipped the awkward first album and tour round, and burst right onto the mainstream.
Mike: To know that you are now coming back to play material from those two albums is just beyond exciting.
Billy: Well, thanks. I can speak for the band when I say we feel the same way. It was a unique thing and we don’t take it for granted that Mer de Noms was an overnight success when we burst onto the scene. A lot of things just fell into place for us. The right video ('Judith', directed by David Fincher), the right record company pushing it for us, that great opening slot with Nine Inch Nails; putting that best effort forward with music we were proud of. And Maynard’s involvement in Tool and his celebrity that helped bring this all together – a lot of the right things just happened all at once.
Mike: Your days as a guitar tech working with Faith No More, The Smashing Pumpkins, Nine Inch Nails and Tool seem like they helped define your career, Billy. How long did you do tech work? When during that time did you know you would form your own band?
Billy: Hmmm. I don’t know. Somebody said something to me once. One of the bands I worked with… one of the guitar players in this band (I’ll keep him nameless), he looked at me one day at dinner and said, “Why are you doing this?” I replied with, “What are you talking about? I do this because I love it.” But he gave me that thing… that seed of questioning what I was doing. He said, “I heard your music. Give it a shot.”
It was one of those things where I thought ‘no, no, no’...
It’s not like I was so self deprecating that I thought I couldn’t do it. I just never thought of it as actually going down. I thought I’d write music and it would be for my own enjoyment, and maybe someday I’d score movies. But I had no idea that I would break into that scene. It was much different in the nineties than it is now. It’s not like anyone back then had the same access to what they needed to actually do it. I think that was a mental turning point for me. Three to four years after that, I was on the David Bowie tour as a guitar tech, and I thought that I would save up as much money as I can and give it a real shot. I was going to not tour for a while. I saved up thirty to forty thousand dollars and paid my rent up for a while and bummed around and wrote music. And that was it; that was like 1996 – 1997.
Then I wound up going into the studio with Guns N Roses. Just for an afternoon with Robin Finck from Nine Inch Nails who got asked to join Gn’R, and he called me to see if could come down and help program his sounds for that audition. It was just such an odd thing, you know? We kind of laughed about it just thinking about it. Guns n’ Roses, right? So we went there and it wound up being a project that I wound up feeling really attached to and really wanting to see it through. I became close with Axl, and stayed there for two and half years. But it was just time to move on after that time. I was continuing to write, and at that point after GNR, I just knew I had to try my own thing. The songs started coming together and the stars were aligning for me musically. That was the time: late 1998 to ’99.
Mike: While Mer de Noms & Thirteenth Step are both excellent albums... I find myself playing the eMOTIVe album a lot. There are ten very unique covers on eMOTIVEe. I love the interpretations of ‘Imagine’ and ‘Gimme Gimme Gimme’ the most. Live on stage, I saw APC do an Ozzy cover in Toronto, and a Failure cover in London. Without discounting the original APC material, some of my favourite APC moments have been the covers.
Mike: Over the years, what has been your favourite defining moment with A Perfect Circle?
Mike: Not necessarily… what really makes you smile when you reflect on the band?
Billy: That Nails tour was so exciting - coming right out of the box with that was amazing. I guitar-teched for Nails for the Downward Spiral tour; arguably one of the greatest tours ever. It’s certainly the greatest tour I have ever seen, and I was lucky enough to be a part of it. It was truly like warfare. The Fragility tour was a different thing. It was a little more refined and a little more mature. It was a really credible and incredible tour to be on. So to come out and not just be in big arenas reaching a lot of people with a band we didn’t really care about was very fortunate. That was a special thing, to be touring together with Nails. We knew those guys, we were friends. We were growing as a band very quickly both personally and musically and it was just rapid-fire.
We are opening up for such a great band with no album out. We went on tour for two months and then the album comes out and it was the biggest debut rock album of all time or something like that. It was just such an exciting time. Getting my father, who is now deceased, to see me play live one time in my life, and it was at Madison Square Garden opening for Nine Inch Nails – it was pretty amazing. For my dad, who never really thought much of music…… “When are you going to get a real job?”, you know? Until I started making some money as a guitar tech, he didn’t know what I was doing. He thought I was up to no good, doing drugs and fucking off and being irresponsible, right? The people I kind of align myself were serious about their craft. They were there to do what I was there to do, and be as good as they could at doing it. That was the highlight – playing Madison Square Garden. Having my family there in front of me, and having something I’ve worked on for my whole life pan out. I didn't really expect it to come together. In my head it was going to be a twenty year struggle, like the Anvil story. I never really thought it would happen. I don’t have a lot of that drive that most musicians have – the get-rich-or-die-trying attitude. I have this bury-my-head-in-the-sand approach to things, and I seem to peek my head out long enough to keep writing songs and not bother anyone in the process. I just have a different musical upbringing, I guess. To have it just happen and all of a sudden be up in front of 17,000 people was thrilling to say the least.
Mike: That could have been a bomb, and you guys totally pulled it off. I’ve seen bands get a primo opening slot and just duff it. APC blew people away on the Fragility tour, and have managed to keep up the interest for the past decade.
Billy: Thanks, man.