Emotional, not mathematical
An interview with Billy Howerdel, founding member of A Perfect Circle
Having worked as a producer and former guitar tech for Smashing Pumpkins, David Bowie and TOOL—among others—Billy Howerdel wanted to be around like-minded people. After showing his music to his friend, TOOL frontman Maynard James Keenan, Howerdel and Keenan recruited an all-star cast of musicians and A Perfect Circle (APC) was born.
Featuring players from Queens of the Stone Age, TOOL, and Smashing Pumpkins, APC released their first studio album, Mer De Noms, in May 2000, which sold over 188,000 copies its first week, making it the highest selling rock debut in history. It went platinum in October that same year.
Currently, APC is touring while preparing to release its next studio album. They play Tulsa on April 22 at the BOK Center.
Besides Howerdel and Keenan, current members include Matt McJunkins (The Beta Machine, Eagles of Death Metal), James Iha (Smashing Pumpkins), and Jeff Friedl (The Beta Machine, Puscifer).
The Tulsa Voice: Last year it was announced that you were working on a new album. Where does it stand now?
Billy Howerdel: I’m working on it right now. It’s getting all the stars to align, with our schedules, that’s going to make it possible… If all goes [according] to plan, we should see it in 2017.
TTV: Are you producing it yourself?
Howerdel: So far I’ve just been working by myself. Literally, been in my room with no one else around working on these songs. I send mixes off to Maynard on a server and he’s been working on them in his isolation. Then we’re going to get together next month and combine where we’re holding these ideas, then get in a room and get with the band, play them in a live setting and see what happens with the human element that comes into the picture.
I’m waiting for some feedback—some of Maynard’s ideas. We tracked years ago. I’m getting very anxious and curious to see where Maynard is at with things. Right now, I have the songs in demo form but they’re easily finishable, but he’s sending me down different paths and has asked me to take out my scissors and cut them into different shapes and paste them back on a page. We can be in the same room but we just happen to be communicating about the same track—just in different parts of the country.
TTV: Do you prefer doing it that way?
Howerdel: Well, that’s kind of how we’ve always done the other APC records. I write it by myself and get it to a place where I’m not embarrassed by it anymore, then present it. And then usually Maynard writes to it. Then, again, we get the band together into a rehearsal room and work them out. Now, to be honest, I’d kind of prefer it the other way. Maynard and I have talked about this before: going somewhere away from my home base, away from his home base and going on working vacation. Working together somewhere in isolation for 10 days and just seeing what happens.
TTV: Are you aware of any possible themes or lyrical content?
Howerdel: Not really. We’ve talked about broad concepts of themes for the past two years but it’s light. We’ve talked about visual themes. There is a narrative, I think, that’s gonna drive some of the lyrical content, but that’s his thing. I work in isolation with the music and come up with the unspoken emotion of what our music is gonna be to start with, then Maynard reacts to that, then we have a conversation and I react to what he gives me. So, I don’t know where it’s gonna land. There’s no intended direction. You never know where it’s gonna go and that’s what’s nice about collaboration. It’s not mathematical, it’s very much emotional. The bird shitting on your head when walking into the studio could completely change the direction of the song or the kiss you just got from your dying grandmother. All these things in your life can contribute to what’s going to be put down on a page or the keyboard.
TTV: Do you enjoy touring or are you more of a studio guy?
Howerdel: Sort of 50/50 but I’m leaning a little more towards touring. I kind of grew up in that world. I like traveling. I like being in different places. I’ve made many friends all over the world through touring for the past 27 years.
Touring musicians get a very unique perspective where we have a job to do but our job is interfacing, sometimes intimately, sometimes from a distance, with people who’ve worked really hard and want to be where we’re gonna be. I think you see the best in people. You see the best of the hard day or shitty day that they had and this is their escape. It is for us too, and we are lucky to be a part of that.
TTV: Do you think the music industry is “collapsing in on itself” as Maynard described it?
Howerdel: I guess it’s always changing, but there was a time when I came up in the 90s and it was changing much less. It’s seemed a little more hopeful than it did in the last two years than it did four or eight years ago. When the recession hit in ‘07 and ‘08, I mean, we were all affected by it in some way but the music industry really seemed to dive bomb. Things feel like they’ve been coming back. I don’t know, maybe, it’s in my bubble, but just economically, things have been getting progressively better year after year, since ‘08. It’s been interesting in music to see that kind of confidence build back up and take its form within the arts. That being said, everyone is accepting that it’s not the traditional model, that we’re all used to in the early 2000s and 90s. There are different ways to get out there and it takes more creativity.
I, personally, don’t like it ‘cause you have to become salesman mixed with being an artist. You have to find people to help you or you have to get creative and, ya know, just do it. I think art suffers from people having to switch hats from being artists to being marketers.
TTV: The last studio album, eMOTIVE, was the most political. Do you anticipate similar messages on this record?
Howerdel: I think it’s probably impossible to escape the torment that we all are going through in this year.
I am open to people taking the interpretation of this album and seeing what happens. I think that’s what’s interesting about music: as long as you are not being psychotic about it and having delusions—then it becomes dangerous—but it’s nice to have your own interpretations of songs. I would think for any artist—whichever side of the political spectrum—it’s going to be really hard to not have influence [from] what’s going on. So, in a way this turmoil is probably really great for the arts. It starts your engine at a pretty high RPM.
TTV: What can Tulsa expect from the APC show?
Howerdel: We’re not promising but we’re hoping to have some new songs to play. They won’t be released, probably, but they’ll be in a working form, which is going to be good cause we’re kind of going to be able to use you guys as our testing ground.
I just want to say thank you all so much for all the support there, it’s been amazing! I can’t wait to get there.
For more from Ty, read his interview with Tom Morello on being a member of Woody Guthrie Center’s Artist Advisory Board.