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A Perfect Circle: The Kotori Interview
Interview with Billy Howerdel, founder of A Perfect Circle and Ashes Divide
In the modern age, no band has come through the ranks of popular rock with more depth and prowess than A Perfect Circle. From a shallow glance, they come off as a stereotypical rock band: leather pants, videos with hot chicks, and what feels like typical song structures. But beneath this deceptive veneer lies an amazing, provocative band, one of those rare creations with the lasting power to impact generations to come.
In short, A Perfect Circle is The Who and Rolling Stones of our time.
The accessible style of APC gives them an edge and reach like no other band around today. Pretty much anybody can immediately enjoy listening to them, while at the same time their music is some of the most creative around, and the lyrics are as equally poetic as they are thought-provoking and socially conscious. In a sea of pretty-packaged music with no depth, APC stands tall as a genre-defining and defying tour de force.
A Perfect Circle was conceived by Billy Howerdel, a former guitar technician for some of the greatest bands in recent history, such as Tool, Nine Inch Nails, David Bowie, Fishbone and more. While working with Fishbone he became friends with Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan, and eventually Keenan offered to provide vocals to Howerdel's music. This became an obvious key to APC's success, as Keenan expanded his legendary vocal skills that seem to have no limits, giving this band arguably the most impressive, hypnotic vocals in rock music.
Despite Keenan's influence (or probably because of it), this is certainly a grand departure from Tool...much to the dismay of die-hard Tool fans, who originally claimed Keenan was "selling out" by joining the band. Their debut album- 2000's Mer de Noms- felt more romantic than anything Tool had (yet) touched on...but the truth is, Howerdel and Keenan still had a deep, intense edge.
The fact that the album sold over 188,000 copies in its first week (the highest debut ever for a rock band) instantly showed what kind of magical touch this band had. The record is a relatively straight-forward rock album, but even from the start, there was always something more to their music. The sonic valleys and mountaintops that Howerdel and the band journey through- with Keenan riding along as the Shaman- deliver a profound listening experience that so often gets lost in over-manufactured music.
Howerdel doesn't shy away from heavy producing, but he does so in a way that doesn't distract the listener from the experience, and very quickly, you feel yourself sucked into APC's music, taken along for the ride until you actually feel like a piece of the art.
Then came their second record in 2002, Thirteenth Step, which is hands down one of the absolute best records of the new millennium. It's elaborate yet simple, a lush masterpiece that's urgently beautiful and raw and pissed off and melodic. Songs like "Pet" chide complacency and politicians, while their cover of Failure's "The Nurse Who Loved Me" is a tender yet subtly depraved ballad.
2004 saw their third release, eMotive, a collection of anti-war songs which Howerdel completely rearranged. Their version of John Lennon's "Imagine" takes on a stark new relevance, whereas their cover of Led Zeppelin's "When the Levee Breaks" is a sweet, gentle track, like a primal whisper straight from the soul of humanity. The album also features tributes to Joni Mitchell, Marvin Gaye, Devo and more.
After aMotion- a remix album/DVD set that came out shortly after eMotive- APC took a break. Keenan went on to work with Tool, Puscifer and his winery; Howerdel successfully launched another project, Ashes Divide, a badass rock band on its own. Every once in a while they'd mention the possibility of working together again, but nothing ever really came through.
Then in September, 2010, they finally reunited, and embarked on a small yet ambitious tour, where each night they'd play one of their albums in its entirety.
This was apparently a primer to get back into the groove, as soon thereafter, they announced not only an expanded tour, but some new songs being thrown into the mix.
A supergroup in the most complete sense of that silly word, APC now features James Iha (formerly of Smashing Pumpkins) on guitar, Josh Freese (of Nine Inch Nails, Devo and Weezer) on drums, Matt McJunkins (Puscifer and Ashes Divide) on bass, and of course Howerdel on lead & rhythm guitars and vocals, and Keenan as lead vocals.
It is with much pleasure and honor that I present you my conversation with Billy Howerdel:
What sparked this new tour after the hiatus?
Billy Howerdel: Just a hole in the schedule, basically. It seemed like Maynard had some time, and we've been wanting to do it for a while, and it just seemed like things came together.
Do you feel bands work best if they take a few years off to do their own thing between albums and tours?
BH: I don't know. Personally, I'd rather keep going, keep momentum and grow like that. But it's interesting what the time off will give you, and how things will play into your influences and everything. It kind of depends on the band, depends on the time.
But the way APC was set up, we weren't ever thinking that was going to be the case anyway. We were set up with the idea that there would be time between albums and touring cycles. Maybe not six years we were thinking, but it was certainly not going to be this on-going thing. It was going to be on-going, but not consistently.
How has the music industry changed since you were last touring with A Perfect Circle?
BH: I don't know, I'm just kind of waking up to it again, and discovering how it is changing. It's so in flux that I think it's more of a DIY kind of situation. A lot of people are trying to wear every hat.
It's humbling a lot of ways artistically, because you can't really focus 100% on just being creative musically, you gotta worry about all these other things. In that kind of way it's interesting, but I don't know if that's the best thing for music. That being said, I keep hearing more and more good music that you might not have necessarily heard before. I mean there's just so much of it out there, that's it's hard to weed through it, there's probably amazing bands that just aren't getting their due because they don't have the vehicle to propel them to the front.
But, the way that people are discovered is different. There could be a YouTube clip of something that's interesting and compelling, that's here today and gone tomorrow. It goes through the Warholian 15 minutes of fame, and the future will have their 30 seconds.
Is that invigorating, or daunting to you?
BH: I've got two different outlooks on it. I got one, being in a band that was successful, with A Perfect Circle, being able to go out and do a tour and make some money- at least pay for the tour and hopefully make some money.
And then I come from the other side, which is Ashes Divide, which was a new band. We started after APC, and we released a record in 2008, which was the worst, worst time to put out records. Everyone was so terrified with the economy crashing, didn't know what was gonna happen. So, it was extremely difficult to get that off the ground.
I have to say, I was definitely shaken by that experience. I'm older than you'd want to be starting a new band. In that kind of thing with Ashes, I wasn't gonna go out and live in a van and knock it out for the next 24 months. It was just one of those things where there was only so much threshold that I'm willing to be OK with enduring.
So, it was very difficult, but we got out there and did it, and it was pretty well received. I can see, for new bands, the way to make it is just gonna be hitchhiking to the show and begging someone to feed you that night after the gig. You kind of see a lot of rock musicians, where everyone thinks, "oh, you're making millions of dollars," and that's usually not the case. Kids have to get into this because they love it, not because they want to get rich. There's other ways to have a plan of attack that makes some money in this world, not being a musician.
A Perfect Circle has every bit of relevance to the current generation as The Doors had to prior generations. What bands for you stand that test of time?
BH: Geez, thanks! It's funny, Depeche Mode is one I would say...I never didn't like them, I just didn't necessarily have their records. But I always respected them and liked them when I heard it. I was a huge music fan- like most kids are when they're a teenager- but I didn't go out and buy their records. I probably got my first one when I was 25.
That band has matured and aged so gracefully, and I'm always surprised every time I hear something now. Now I wind up buying all their albums as they come out. I'm just surprised that they can keep going, because a lot of people don't.
You look at Depeche Mode, and these are guys that are in their 40's at least, and they're making relevant music that seems to have a finger on the pulse of what's going on, and moreso than that, has really propelled and shaped a style of music, a genre of music that's reached not just into electronic music but into pop and even heavy music, for decades. I think that's a great accomplishment.
There are other bands that I was into as a kid, but that's one that I can think of that's truly iconic.
You were a guitar tech for Bowie too, right?
He seems like he's able to transcend the generations...
BH: Yeah, absolutely, he's got a lot of stamina, and a lot of desire and drive to try new things. Even if they're things that he thinks are not going to be the most popular, they're going to be a creative spark for him.
Are there any newer bands out that you feel have that kind of potential for longevity?
BH: I think Band of Horses is a great band. Just from the get-go, the first record was an incredible offering, then the second record came out, and I thought that was almost like a continuation. I don't need, all the time, for bands to grow so much that they go completely 180 degrees in the opposite direction. They certainly seem to have a sound that they stick with, and that's fine for what kind of music that is.
I hope and think that band will be around for a while, it's got a kind of timeless, classic sound to it anyway.
M83 is a great band, who I actually tried to get out on this tour, but they were unavailable.
Who drives the social consciousness behind A Perfect Circle's music? Is that you, is it Maynard, or is it kind of a collaborative thing?
BH: I would say it's Maynard; he's the voice of this band, and his lyrics truly paint what A Perfect Circle is. I feel my responsibilities are more around the unspoken, the musical aesthetic of this band, what it sounds like overall. But the driving message, the thing that you first hear, and what you subconsciously feel, comes from what Maynard's putting out there.
On this tour, are you still doing albums straight through, or is it more of a wide-spread set?
BH: It's more of a regular set.
Are you guys working on new music for A Perfect Circle?
BH: Yep. Our plan is to be playing at least one of the new songs live on this run.
Has being in a band like A Perfect Circle, and selling millions of records, made it harder for you to identify with struggling musicians and artists?
BH: No, not at all. I think for both of us- with Maynard doing Puscifer and me doing Ashes Divide- it puts us right back there. We obviously have a great advantage, with somewhat of a history to draw upon, but it really doesn't do as much as you'd think.
I knew that going into it. Someone gave me words of wisdom, saying, "Look at Mick Jaggar's solo records, at the time the Stones were selling ungodly amount of records." It's not like there's always this immediate, guaranteed success. There really needs to be something worthy, that people can sink their teeth into. With APC, and the same with Ashes, I try to do things that are substance-based, at least I feel they are.
To go out and give it your all, that doesn't necessarily mean it's gonna stick. It was difficult...and it was a bummer too. Sometimes, you're putting everything you got into it, and you have a great shot...but then you think about the people who don't have a good shot, how hard it is for them. It truly gives you an appreciation for them.
What's the difference between being a guitarist and a guitar technician?
BH: The way I looked at the job was, I was there so the guitar player never even realized there was anything more than stepping on stage and getting lost in playing the music. It depends on the guitar player, but you can look at someone like The Edge, who is going to have a very complex rig of effects processors and constantly pushing the envelope.
I kind of always seemed to get more of that kind of guitar player that I worked for; it's what I was interested in. I was interested in textures, and different guitar sounds, pushing the envelope. Not just being a guitar builder, not the guy who wanted to sit and chill, I wanted to work with computers in some kind of way.
Were you in bands before A Perfect Circle?
BH: No, I just basically wrote music on my own. When I first started playing guitar, six months into it (you can imagine how good that was), I played with two other guys in New Jersey where I grew up, and we just played cover songs. And the bass player wrote music, so we played some of his songs.
We played three shows: one in someone's basement, one at a place called the Snow Pony in Asbury Park, and one at a college dorm party. That was the extent of our playing, so I barely count that as a band experience, but I guess it was.
There was about 10 years in between APC and that.
So your first band experience is an immediately successful band, with A Perfect Circle?
BH: Yeah. Our first show with APC was at the Viper Room...which is a tiny place, to be honest, but it's still a really cool venue. And then our third show was at Coachella. Everything aligned perfectly for APC from the beginning, in every kind of way. The schedule, the push, the right record company person, the right manager, the right opening slots. And, luckily, I guess it was the right music for the time.
Are you going to pick up Ashes Divide once the APC tour is finished?
BH: Yeah, I'm kind of writing stuff now, and I'm considering doing a tour right on the heels of this one. Maybe just taking a little break, and then at the end of summer taking it across America.
How would you explain the differences between the two projects?
BH: I'm a little more adventurous with Ashes in that I'm not afraid to do a little more song structure. I know it sounds kind of crazy, but I guess what comes to me a little bit easier is a little more asymmetrical approach to song writing. And I set out to do Ashes with a little bit different thing in mind, which is more up-tempo, a little bit faster, a little bit more straight-forward but still have the same kind of layering and texturing over top of it.
So, I dunno, I'm writing songs for both, and I really don't even know what song's gonna go where right now. When I write them, they just kind of go in the Billy Howerdel file, I don't have a designation for them until something really makes sense.
Or, a lot of times...I just gave Maynard a few songs, and he picked one that I thought he would probably, and then one that I thought he would definitely not pick, as new APC material. You just never know.
How are you guys going to go about releasing that stuff?
BH: Probably ourselves. We've been approached by record companies, but for right now, we're probably going to release it ourselves.
Ten years from now, how do you see artists continuing to make a good living in the Digital Age?
BH: [laughs] I don't know, ten years is a long time. I guess I think what popular music is, is like...there was a movie, Demolition Man with Wesley Snipes and Sandra Bullock...and one of the little side-schticks was, instead of songs on the radio, they'd listen to old commercials. That could be a very dark way of looking at it, but we're kind of on that route right now. Bands are sort of forced- if you want make any money- to license your music to someone that, in the past, you would be all high and mighty about, and say, you know, "I would never let my music be used in a Coke commercial."
As it gets more and more like that, and those are the only people that can pay because people don't really...I don't know, you can put whatever label on it you want, but if you don't need to pay for it, people aren't paying for it.
There's some people that do...I mean, I go out of my way because it's what I do, as a musician. If I like a record, even if somebody gives me a record, I'll go buy three more copies and give them to other people, just knowing what it's like to be a musician, and if anything, out of respect to show that somebody's actually listening.
You can be so popular, but not even know. There was rampant downloading in South America to the point of, we didn't know if we could go there and play a show because there's no real way to gauge it in 2001 or 2002. You go down there and it's a total gamble. The only thing you can do is hope a promoter is going to throw a bunch of money at you because they think that you're gonna sell out. But how do you know if nobody is buying records?
It's sort of similar now with record sales, but the difference is, you got Facebook and YouTube and things that people can go and say they like you, but what does that mean? It doesn't take a lot of effort to click a "Like" button.
It shows more of a commitment, throwing down $10 or $15 for a record. It's like anything else in life: if you work hard for it, and are paying for it, you're going to appreciate it and possibly like it more.
I remember my first record I bought, was The Cars' first record on vinyl. I cherished that thing; I took care of it, I cleaned it every time I used it. It was a big deal.
It's a shame that, I don't think, a lot of especially younger kids have the same kind of appreciation for things. But it's the same old thing you hear from parents, "what's up with these kids nowadays, there's no manners!" It's the same kind of thing...but I'm a father now, and I see the truth in that.
Do you still go to record stores, or do you buy all your music online?
BH: Mostly online. We have a music store here in LA called Amoeba Records, I'll go in there when I can. It's always a nice experiment, taking my son in there, and showing him basically what he'll see in a museum by the time he's a teenager, museum of a music store.
There's a place called The Sound Exchange in New Jersey, that was truly my window into another culture. I grew up in a town called West Milford, New Jersey, with no music store. I bought that vinyl at a Shop Rite food store. They had the smallest section of music you could imagine.
But Sound Exchange, which was a few towns south of us, had everything. It was so cool; they had every import from the UK. And there was a radio station- that only my mom's clock radio in her room got- from Long Island, New York, called LIRK...and there was this really interesting band, what you'd call "Dark Wave Music" now or whatever...and that Sound Exchange always had things imported, whether it was The Cure import, or Elvis Costello, Killing Joke.
All this interesting music, for being the 80's, was difficult to find in a mainstream outlet. It's nice having that kind of outlet for things, that you had to work hard to find.
I guess it's similar nowadays, you gotta kinda weed through a lot of crap to get to some good music. Usually it's word-of-mouth, but I guess the culture kind of solidifies and imparts itself in where you'd find the Sound Exchanges of today.