A perfect circle, more than a mathematical ideal, is the result of radiance, cohesion and unity. A Perfect Circle is also the name of the heady, headstrong and heartfelt musical project designed by Billy Howerdel and Maynard James Keenan to provide a reference to the substantive musical and lyrical output available to listeners who may be concerned with the otherwise empty or vapid world that lies outside of poetic perfection.
If that sounds complicated, take heart. Howerdel, the founder and guitarist of A Perfect Circle, is more than happy to explain the methodology behind such endeavors. The dude did just that in a recent telephonic conversation held with Weekly Alibi. So, grab a compass and follow along as two rocanrol conversationalists discuss the circular implications inherent in the band’s complex but earnest approach to music-making and cultural progress.
Weekly Alibi: Hey Billy, what an honor to finally get to talk to you!
Billy Howderel: Hey man, nice to talk to you, too!
I know you all are working on new music, ahead of an early 2018 album release, the first since 2004. Tell me about that new, as of yet, unnamed LP.
I’ve always written all the music, Maynard’s written all the words. That’s kinda been the formula we’ve always used. The difference with this album is that we hired a producer to help me do some of the heavy lifting that typically, I always take care of, producing, budgeting, recording. It’s been really nice to be able to sit back and be a musician, to try and see the 20,000 foot view of a song, instead of being buried deep within it.
How is that process affecting work on the new recording?
It’s great to be able to sit back and have someone at the helm driving the computer. It frees me up to ask for things I’d like to see happen. There’s an ego thing in play at the beginning that says, ‘Yeah I wanna do everything myself.’ Sometimes it’s faster to do it yourself and having someone else’s opinion sort of derails that something you have in mind ... and you feel you can’t get there quick enough. But it eventually will come to be, anyway. You’ll get there because, ultimately, it’s cool letting someone else have some input and letting go. Then it becomes a collaborative process. Our producer, Dave Sardy is very strong-headed; he has strong opinions. It’s great to work with someone who has made a lot of records, who has seen a lot of records being made. There’s a meeting of the minds there. It’s all interesting and exhausting, a wonderful endeavor.
What’s your motive for that kind of process?
Maynard probably has a better answer about motives. But my motive revolves around the fact that I’m always working. I’m constantly creating. What pile those creations go into is the real question. Is it going into A Perfect Circle’s pile, is it a potential film score or is it solo project material? I’ve been writing for a long time. There’s a lot of things I’ve been working on, demoing, trying to get a sense of what a record would be with certain songs attached to it. At this point, I’ve pretty much shown Maynard what I have in mind. I try and be strategic. When he’s chewing on things, on a roll, I feed him [music] as needed. Maynard seems to be more engaged, more prolific than ever. I’ve never really gotten goose bumps from hearing his vocals for the first time—it takes sharpening, it takes mixing, getting that nuance together. But the emotion that’s there from him this time, the approach, it is incredible.
So is Maynard an interpreter of your creative force? To what extent does he shape your output as a composer?
I’d call it a musical conversation. And you never know where that’s going to go. He summarized it on our spring tour: ‘Our job as artists is to experience, interpret and report back to our audience about how we’re feeling about a set of given topics or situations.’ In a sense, you receive this piece of music and use it to begin a conversation. How one responds is truly what collaboration is. I might have something emotional attached to a song, but I try not to name that; I try not to tell him about meaning directly. It’s all for him to interpret.
How does the rest of your ensemble fit into that collaborative model?
Typically, he and I will finish out the record, then we figure out how to bring life to the product on the road, in performance with the others. It has to be reinterpreted, replayed. It’s another piece of the puzzle. At that point, you really start fine-tuning and honing the songs. We just finished a spring tour, we introduced two new songs. Back in the studio, we’re making changes to those songs based on performing them [with the whole group]. There are different things that sound compelling on record versus live performance.
It sounds like a fairly immersive process, music is a constant force in your life, ¿que no?
I’m never bored, put it that way. I’ve got this mistress of music always waiting [for me]. I’m always wanting to get back to that. Music has kept up my interest from the day I first picked up a guitar.
Your story seems like like an amazing set of circumstances. You cut your teeth as a formidable engineer and technician. At the time you were immersed in that world, as a world-class sound man, did you see this outcome, I mean developing into one of rocanrol’s most influential players?
I feel very fortunate that things fell into line the way they did. But that’s hindsight ... At some point you align yourself with talented people and either they or their peers, friends or acquaintances, will come into your life. That’s sort of what happened with APC ... that’s kind of the organic way bands happen. With knowing Maynard, we were friends first, we can tolerate each other. Because you know the truth: touring means you’re living in a submarine, it’s tight, literally and metaphorically.
Did the name of the band come from a realization of those circumstances you just described?
It came from one of the first two songs we collaborated on. It’s a line from the song “Orestes.” Paz Lenchantin [the band’s first bassist, now with the Pixies] and I were just laying on the ground, staring at the ceiling, trying to think of band names. She said ‘a perfect circle’ as we were listening to the song [Orestes]. Everything else we thought of, we hated. I started thinking about what the phrase means, what that lyric means ... there’s a feminine, a vaginal reference there, I think. The band definitely has a feminine approach, which can be differentiated from where Maynard was with Tool. The message of this band ... there’s a lot of vulnerability, there’s a lot of emotion.
Do young people get that deeper substance that your sound and visual presentation suggest?
I don’t even know if that’s something we consider, as a band. We’re doing what we do and it’s up to other people to interpret that. I feel like this record is ... I don’t want to sound trite, but I am more proud of this than anything we’ve done. The hardest part is waiting so long for the release date. I was trying to explain all of this, the substance, to my son. He listens to what most teenagers listen to. So, for him, this is a very foreign sound: the heaviness, the message. It’s the antithesis of the vapid culture of today. My hope for all of this, for someone in my own family, is to have our explanation understood. I understand why you like what you do. It’s saccharine, it’s sweet and you’ll be sick of it quickly. But you know there’s a different flavor coming soon. That’s the model we’re speaking to. It’s like, I’ve got these merchants out in the world selling me the new MSG. It tastes great but how much does it stay with you? I tell my son, ‘I’d be surprised if you like the music you’re listening to now in 15 years.’ Our position is to make music that sticks with you your entire life. That’s really a perfect circle.