On April 27, 1994, Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan took his friend/guitar tech Billy Howerdel to see Nine Inch Nails play at The Palace in Los Angeles. Howerdel wasn’t all that familiar with the industrial metal band, but a trip out with Keenan was always an adventure.
“I think [Keenan] was meeting Gene Simmons there, of all people,” Howerdel says with a laugh. (Howerdel, for the record, may be the only rock-loving child of the ’70s who wasn’t a KISS fan: “I had the lunch box but that’s kind of where it started and stopped with me.”)
Within a few months, Howerdel was working as Trent Reznor’s guitar tech on another leg of Nine Inch Nails’ Self Destruct Tour. (That cinnaburst Gibson you see Howerdel playing on stage these days, that was Reznor’s once upon a time. If you could get close enough, you’d see the head is glued on, a near casualty of the more than 130 guitars Howerdel estimates were destroyed during that tour.)
Through the ’90s, Howerdel served as a guitar technician on tour and in the studio for more than a handful of rock’s contemporary gods: The Smashing Pumpkins, Faith No More, Guns ‘N’ Roses, David Bowie. It all helped set the stage for a more extravagant act in Howerdel’s life, but it was his friendship with Tool’s Keenan that would help Howerdel live out his wildest rock ‘n’ roll dreams with his own band, A Perfect Circle. With Keenan’s mesmerizing baritone decorating Howerdel’s theatrical melodies, A Perfect Circle’s debut album, 2000’s Mer de Noms, was an instant rock classic, equal parts fierce and delicate. It was followed by 2003’s Thirteenth Step, a lush concept album about addiction, then by 2004’s eMotive, a collection of radically reimagined political songs (and two underappreciated original tracks).
The band’s prestige was polished into a blinding light by a revolving who’s who of rock in supporting rolls, including Tim Alexander from Primus on drums, Marilyn Manson’s bassist Jeordie White, and Danny Lohner from Nine Inch Nails on rhythm guitar. (The current lineup includes James Iha from The Smashing Pumpkins on guitar, storied rock session drummer Jeff Friedl, and Matt McJunkins, of Queens of the Stone Age, on bass.)
But after eMotive, it seemed like the supergroup might have burned out, a victim of its own white-hot celebrity. A live set at Red Rocks and an album of greatest hits were all fans were left to subsist on over the last 14 years. There were a few tours, but no new music from APC. Tool’s last album, 10,000 Days, was released in 2006. Keenan’s filled the gap making wine at his vineyard in Arizona and music with his catch-all project Puscifer. Howerdel teamed up with some current and former members of APC to release one solo album under the name Ashes Divide in 2008. They publicly swore A Perfect Circle wasn’t dead, though at least once Keenan said the band was “on life support.”
It’s been a long, dry decade for rock. Think pieces cried that rock was dead, its reign in America cut down by Max Martin’s pop machine and the slow but steady rise of hip-hop.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, A Perfect Circle announced a North American tour in 2017. Howerdel and Keenan had told reporters for years there was new APC music in the works, but it just wasn’t getting off the ground (Keenan — always moving, ever the taskmaster for his exacting, perfectionist bandmates — wanting to release singles as they arose, while Howerdel insisted APC’s work be released as full albums). When the band couldn’t finish their first recording in 1999, they took what they had on the road, reinvigorating themselves and the music, and within months they had finished laying down the tracks that would constitute Mer de Noms. Fans wondered if this new tour was meant to do the same.
“We’re glad to see you guys,” Keenan told a crowd at the 1stBank Center in April 2017 — his 53rd birthday, to be exact — “but this is about us.”
A little more than a year later, on April 20, A Perfect Circle finally dropped a new album, Eat The Elephant.
“We are musicians; we are emotional and not as calculated,” Howerdel admits. “Once we have a calendar set we stick to it, but the times in between are dictated by how do I feel about this at this moment?”
Frustrated, perhaps, but Howerdel never admits it. He accepts the glacial pace of his creative process with Keenan, Howerdel composing the melodies from his homebase in Los Angeles and sending them to Keenan, who crafts lyrics from his home in the Green Valley of Arizona.
“I don’t have to explain [the music to Keenan],” he says. “It’s like the old adage in storytelling: you don’t show and tell, you just show or tell. I’m just showing [Keenan] what I’ve got in mind. Sometimes Maynard has to tell me what he would kind of like me to go towards, but I guess that’s for me to interpret, whether I can.”
They are, in their own ways, control freaks.
For the first time, Howerdel enlisted the help of an outside producer, eclectic alt-rock afficianado Dave Sardy (Marilyn Manson, Oasis, LCD Soundsystem, Death From Above 1979). Sardy stripped Howerdel’s demos down to their bare necessities, just the melody and beat, opening the tracks up to Keenan’s lyrical interpretation. (“Like most guys who play guitar or write music,” Keenan told Rolling Stone earlier this year, “[Howerdel] had extra time on his hands and was adding things and layering things to the songs.” Never one to mince words.)
Eat The Elephant seems to pick up where eMotive left off, heavy on the social and political commentary. It’s a lush album, fuller and more orchestral than their earlier work. Some critics have argued it’s bloated, while others contend it’s an album that showcases a long-standing band’s choice to evolve rather than to pander. It endears itself to those willing to play it more than once, give it a rest, and come back to it with fresh ears.
Frankly, Howerdel and Keenan kind of don’t care what you think. To poke fun at the criticism they knew was coming, they enlisted Dan Dunn, journalist and professional boozer, to write a fake bio in APC’s press kit, explaining that Howerdel was cryogenically frozen for the last 14 years:
“We hope the established rock critics at the major magazines and newspapers really embrace this album,” [Howerdel] said. “It’d be great to get a mention in SPIN or Blender, but let’s face it, when it comes to reaching fans — especially teenagers — nothing is more important than the opinions of middle-aged white men at our nation’s great newspapers. That happens, and this CD will be flying off the shelves at Tower Records and Sam Goody!”
Howerdel is well aware of the power of his partnership with Keenan, who lets Howerdel “focus on the esoteric nature of the music.”
“Once [Keenan] puts [lyrics] on [the songs] and the recorded vision is there, that’s what they are,” Howerdel says. “I’m happy to let go of it. I trust Maynard with whatever he’s going to come with, honest and authentic art. I barely question anything at all. Even if I kind of raise an eyebrow to an initial idea, I always know it’s going to come around.”
On the Bill: A Perfect Circle — with Tricky, Night Club. 7:30 p.m. Monday, Oct. 22, Red Rocks Amphitheatre, 18300 W. Alameda Parkway, Morrison, redrocksonline.com