Greg Puciato Interviewed by A Perfect Circle's Billy Howerdel | Revolver

Greg Puciato Interviewed by A Perfect Circle's Billy Howerdel

Former Dillinger Escape Plan wild man opens up to APC's bandleader about the fear and freedom in going solo
gregpuciato_2022_credit_jimlouvau.jpg, Jim Louvau
Greg Puciato, 2022
photograph by Jim Louvau

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If you know Greg Puciato, then you know the vocalist is a full-fledged night owl. The former Dillinger Escape Plan frontman has long structured his life around the dark: playing shows, writing music, cooking up new business ideas and generally getting weird in the nocturnal hours. He doesn't get up before noon, like, ever. So, when Puciato accepts Revolver's invitation to join his friend Billy Howerdel, of A Perfect Circle, on Zoom at exactly noon, well, we are extremely curious to see if he shows up — and in what state.

But, if you know Greg Puciato, then you also know that when he sets his sights on a goal, he's damn-near unstoppable. Proving that point, when the clock strikes 12, Puciato appears. He's running on three hours of sleep (he was up late watching Netflix's Metal Lords), but explains that he's willed himself awake at this obscene hour, in part, to help reset his clock after the run of tour dates he just wrapped as a member of Jerry Cantrell's solo band. He's also not about to miss the opportunity to discuss his new sophomore solo record, Mirrorcell, with Howerdel.

At nine songs, Mirrorcell is a concise yet richly textured statement that takes the Trent Reznor–channeling vibes of Puciato's 2020 solo debut, Child Soldier: Creator of God, to a different, moodier alt-rock level. He performed and recorded all vocals and music on Mirrorcell — except for drums, for which he enlisted Chris Hornbrook (Poison the Well), and a killer guest vocal spot from Code Orange's Reba Meyers (on the emphatic "Lowered").

At this point in his career, DEP is far in the rearview mirror, but the dynamic musician is busier than ever. Beyond Puciato's solo work and  shows with Cantrell, there's metal supergroup Killer Be Killed (with Max Cavalera, Troy Sanders and Ben Koller), electronic outfit the Black Queen and his record label, Federal Prisoner, with visual artist Jesse Draxler. All this is what keeps him up at night, but also what revitalizes him.

"The more you have going on," says Puciato, "and the more you can self-dictate your schedule, the more you can bring it back to just the purity of being like, I'm psyched to be doing this."

The singer is sharing this personal insight with Howerdel. The two have been friends for a decade, and both are intimately familiar with the challenges — and rewards — of juggling multiple artistic projects. The A Perfect Circle guitarist is also readying a new solo album, What Normal Was. It's his most personal creation yet, thanks to his APC bandmate Maynard James Keenan, who, he says, "encouraged me to use my voice front and center" to better tell the story of "who I am." The new album — his first solo release since 2008's Keep Telling Myself It's Alright (which was issued under the moniker Ashes Divide) — is a collection of atmospheric modern goth-rock songs that evoke the synth-pop of Depeche Mode and the dirtier side of the Smiths. Howerdel brings guests Danny Lohner, Josh Freese, Matt McJunkins, Marissa Nadler and more along for the ride.

In this interview — which has been edited for length and clarity — the two musicians discuss a wide range of topics, from record-shopping fails and inspiring collabs to cultivating the "chaos element" and shedding punk-rock teenage fears.

BILLY HOWERDEL It's funny. You could know someone for a long time — didn't know you played guitar really. Then I hear your records and you're awesome, dude. The guitar riffage ... Anyone who bites a little My Bloody Valentine kind of vibe always gets a smile out of me.

GREG PUCIATO We definitely have a lot of mutual seeds, musical seeds, for sure. I was listening to, not just your new record, but going back, I started with the first Perfect Circle record [Mer de Noms]. I hear you say that from a guitar-playing perspective. Having now recorded a couple albums with the guitar, it changes the way you listen. You're listening with the other ear now.

HOWERDEL Right. But the purity of riffs and the song, though, right? That's where I always try and go back to … You've got some amazing movements on this record. There's a whole other layer with the piece, your vocals are like a reaction. Only thing I can think is that feeling in the Nineties... I'm old enough to remember that wiping out of hair metal. It sounds like you're wiping out something that was too clean and smearing sludge all over it, but with power. It's dangerous and alive. It's awesome.

PUCIATO That's cool to hear. I feel like I've become protective of not sawing edges off too much. You can't just shine things down to the point where they're antiseptic. You have to develop the ability to keep things messy enough to allow for everything.

When I was a kid, I was really into thrash. And hair metal was … just something I had to sit through on MTV to get to either thrash or alternative. There was no loud guitar that was alternative really. … Not in a way that someone my age could've found out about. If you lived somewhere where there was a scene or you could go to shows, then, yeah. I always would try to steal the metal magazines from the fucking convenience stores. If there were articles about bands that I liked, I would rip them out and stuff them in my pocket because I couldn't afford the magazines. That was the only way I could find out about things unless they were in front of me.

There was such an explosion of stuff happening [from] '89 to '93 — just a relentless washing away of the old with some new exciting thing. I think of myself as an alternative artist primarily because of that. If you were listening to alternative music at that time on the radio, alternative just meant a catchall for things that weren't easily identifiable — and that wasn't a pejorative. There was no real crusade to put [bands] in the smallest micro category possible like there is today — and [alternative] might mean Primus, but it also might mean Rage Against the Machine, Nine Inch Nails, Sonic Youth, R.E.M. … and none of those bands sound anything alike.


gregpuciato_2022_2_credit_jimlouvau.jpg, Jim Louvau
photograph by Jim Louvau

PUCIATO You never thought that was weird because when you're a kid … it's unnatural for you to be anything other than free and wildly expressive. … It's only later that people try to break things down, like, No, you can't play Sega and Nintendo. You got to pick one. Or you can't have Reebok and Nike. Even in school, the whole point of school is to funnel you into picking [a profession], not finding something you're passionate about. … That's so warping to your brain, to your natural development, and it's the antithesis of creativity.

HOWERDEL I agree. Back then there was a fight that was within all of us because you weren't overly nurtured. … I think that's what pre-internet kids like us value, that curation and finding your peer group. Though I probably wasted too many hours on records that weren't good just because it was all I had. [Laughs]

PUCIATO There's definitely times where you try to force yourself to like something just because you accidentally spent your money on it. You had 20 bucks worth of allowances saved up … like, "I'm going to get this cassette tape. It better be fucking good. The album cover looks awesome."

HOWERDEL Yeah … the album-cover shopping. Not to throw a band under the bus, but I remember seeing Alien Sex Fiend or some cover that I thought was cool. Then I bought the record and I was like, I don't like this.

PUCIATO Molly Hatchet.

HOWERDEL Exactly. Molly Hatchet. I wanted to hear when's the fucking dragon being slayed?

PUCIATO When I saw those covers in my dad's record collection, those were some of the covers that stood out to me the most, like, Oh shit, this record's going to beat me up. This is going to be some dark shit I shouldn't be listening to. Then it was... Wait, this isn't what it looks like.

HOWERDEL OK, back to Mirrorcell … "Never Wanted That" has such a great chorus. The lift is awesome! Enough so that … I already started doing a remake of that song. So, I've illegally torn your song apart.

PUCIATO Dude, if you want, I'll send you the a capella. If you wanted to make a remix of that, I'm not going to stop you, man. That would be amazing.

HOWERDEL Yeah! I was really compelled by it. Take it as a compliment — not that I want to change the song. I was just like, Oh, I want to fuck around with this even more. I don't know about you, but I keep working on music until nothing bothers me anymore. … When you're in that phase and you've done everything to make the song what it needs to be — to see it turned over on its head is unique. Now that I've said it, I'm in the middle of the crush of artwork for the record, merch and then tour prep and putting the band together … but I like that distraction. Anything to make you not have to finish your work, right? [Laughs]

PUCIATO I think if you have a lot of things going on it keeps you from burning out. People are always [telling] me, "You're doing so many different things you're going to burn out!" I'm like, no, honestly, I feel more energy than I've ever had. The thing that burns you out is doing one thing that you have to do that you are just ground to dust on, and that you just don't have a relief from.

HOWERDEL How old are some of these Mirrorcell tracks? It's kind of a dreaded question. I always get weird answering it, but I figure I'll ask it anyway.

PUCIATO They're all new on this one. Every other record there's been things that I can trace back to really far away. All of these ideas were written together like a cluster. I think I had the first two heavy ones, "No More Lives to Go" was written out of "Reality Spiral" as if they were a duo. I didn't think I was writing at that point. I just picked up a guitar and they came out and it wasn't really planned. The first solo record wasn't that old yet.

But when I wrote it, I was like, "Hey Steve [Evetts, producer], do you have time to do just maybe two songs?" We'll do a 7-inch and I'll put it on Spotify as a single, a double A-side EP. Then it started getting close to the recording time and I was like, "Shit, I want to cram another." I get the three, then midway through recording I was like, "Let's do an intro track." I just wrote "In This Hell You Find Yourself" deliberately. Now we're at four and then, "Fuck, I'm really excited now. I think I got more shit coming." He's like, "Dude, can you please just commit to this being a full-length? We can set everything back up and then let's just commit to a month." So the whole record was written really quickly. It's more cohesive than the first one, which was really all over and rambling — I don't think in a bad way.

HOWERDEL No, this one's focused, for sure. What was the thing that took you down the most on this record? What was the one you couldn't crack and finally came through?

PUCIATO Oh, dude, I couldn't get "Lowered." I was stuck. I almost had to leave it off. I didn't know what to do.

HOWERDEL I can totally relate to that because it's hooky and it's like, you want it to be as good as it can be. Like, how am I going to honor the rest of the song with more good parts, right?

PUCIATO Yeah. I'm like you. I'm not a shredder guy. I write guitars the way I write vocals. They're just melody to me. They're a voice. I hear the guitar as a singer. I already wrote that guitar line — it's a melody [and then] I couldn't come up with a vocal for it. I was like, "I have to try something that is going to nudge me out of this."

So, I was listening to some pop duet not even in our realm. Might have been something as dumb as [Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond's] "You Don't Bring Me Flowers Anymore." … I remember hearing a guy/girl vocal and being like, "Fuck! Maybe a girl voice would be the key to unlocking this." It would be cool to have a female voice because the song has a feminine energy to it, too. It's not just like a big, blunt-force hammer. … I had a week left, so I'm thinking about people that live around here that are in our circles, like Chelsea Wolfe and Emma Ruth Rundle … I had recently — after eight years of being off — decided to rejoin social media. So I opened this Instagram page and it randomly starts recommending you people … and there was this video of Reba [Meyers] just thrashing way hard.

Her band Code Orange had opened one of the final Dillinger shows in late 2017. I didn't have a lot of time to watch them, but I remember being completely captivated by her as a performer and her energy and her voice.

We hadn't spoken since, but the way that she was performing was like, Oh, shit, we have the same type of energy. I was thinking it would be super cool to take someone unexpected and put them in a different frame … Like if someone were to hear a guy from Dillinger and a girl from Code Orange, they would think it's going to be some heavy song.

So I DM'd her and was like, "Hey, I've got a part on my record that I think might be for you if you're interested." She was like, "I'm going to be in L.A. We're finishing Knotfest and then I'm staying out here for three days. So, if you need me to come to the studio ..."

She came in fearlessly — and to her credit because later she said she was nervous and … had to overcome it. But she came in straight-up bold, into the booth with me, put on a separate pair of headphones and was like, "Oh, when you did that, it was better. Hmm, I don't know about that. I don't know if I like that." In my head I'm like, Who the fuck are you? But it was impressive, and just completely energized the song. Like, you're trying to find the bone that lets you know you've got a full skeleton, and then the second you find that bone, then you're frantically trying to fucking uncover the dinosaur, you know? But I didn't find that moment until she showed up.

HOWERDEL It's like muscle development, right? You got to shock your muscles into not seeing the repetition or they're never going to grow. Same with creativity.

PUCIATO Chaos element. Something that allows you to not fully dictate — that allows it to still feel like you're being pushed and that you're having fun. That's what we're talking about with burning out. I had lost the joy for that song because I tried so hard.

When she hits the gas at the end of her verse and really fucking lets it rip, I was like, "Whoa!" It's another cool element that the girl is bringing the anger element, like the fire, to the song and I'm not.

gregpuciato_2022_3_credit_jimlouvau.jpg, Jim Louvau
photograph by Jim Louvau

HOWERDEL She definitely does. It was a great complement because, even if you were in the same range to the listener, to me, I was like, "Oh, she's going up above and ..." But yeah, it's a good one.

PUCIATO I've become more interested in that pure collaboration thing now that I don't get it as much. People are always like, "What do you like more?" I don't like either more. They satisfy different things. You have ultimate freedom with the solo thing and it's insanely gratifying to be able to go down little wormholes.


HOWERDEL You and I talked about the name thing … It was a year ago we went out for my birthday, and I was going to put out my record as Ashes Divide. It's just different enough where it was bugging me. I just thought, I don't think this is the same project, but Ashes Divide is my solo record … You were pushing me towards like, "Yeah, use your name because you have the flexibility."

PUCIATO As an artist, I feel like your go-to initially is to feel apologetic for even doing it. You're just like, Ah, I don't know. It's kind of ridiculous that I make stuff, put it out, how audacious, how obnoxious to think anyone cares.

HOWERDEL There was a time, I'd say in my twenties, when I felt like, How dare I be proud of anything I do? I was talking you out of my music before I even played the first thing.

PUCIATO Right! I felt powerful in a band. The idea of putting out solo music felt intensely vulnerable and raw. I didn't feel comfortable with the idea that the name that the music was going to come out under was going to be the same as the guy who gets the electric bill. It just seemed too real, but I knew that's why I had to do it. People do this in every other genre. It's only weird in rock and metal. Nick Cave doesn't put music out if it's not called Nick Cave. Peter Gabriel's not embarrassed to be Peter Gabriel. And Jerry Cantrell, when he and I started becoming really good friends, there was never a moment when he was working on his record that it wasn't going to be called Jerry Cantrell.

He knew that I was working on my first record while he was working on Brighten. I was like, "Do you ever feel weird about putting this record out and calling it Jerry Cantrell?" He was like, "Nahhh. Look, own your thing. You're a badass. This is what you're writing. You feel passionate about it. You might bring in people to help collaborate, but it is just you and don't feel weird about it, man." I was just like, "Fucking-A, you're right!"

I'm just not used to it. I'd gotten so guilty feeling. I started to feel really bad in Dillinger because I was such a focal point that it was almost problematic that anytime there would be a review of the band there would be: Here's a picture of Greg jumping off a balcony or bleeding from the face. … A singer already gets an unfair amount of attention.

HOWERDEL I wonder if you feel like the East Coast thing has something to do with it. Because I grew up in New Jersey. You grew up in Baltimore. You come up around people going like, "How fucking dare you?"

PUCIATO I grew up in a neighborhood where if you were to drive a Lexus it would've gotten the windows bashed in because it would've been seen as insulting to everyone else. It would've been like, "Who the fuck is this douchebag driving around in a fucking nice car? That's not acceptable. You're a regular-ass motherfucker. Keep it real." But that never leaves you — and then you get doubled down on that when you come from a punk-rock scene. You get punk-rock guilt, where you have [people] constantly telling you that you should feel almost guilty for striving.

I just had to let it go. And the first single that came out on the first record, the day it came out, I was filled with a pride that I didn't anticipate.

HOWERDEL Oh my god, dude. Right? I mean, the same.

PUCIATO I thought I was going to be ashamed. When I had that feeling, that was around the time that you were asking me, "Should I call this Ashes? Should I give it a name? Should I call it Billy Howerdel?" And I was like, "Dude, please do not not call this your name." Because I wanted you to feel that feeling.

HOWERDEL And I did. The first day ... you see your name on Apple Music, on Spotify, whatever, it is different. I had that butterfly feeling.

PUCIATO It did this cool thing for me where it merged my personal view of myself and my creative. Because you separate them a little bit. But it merged them in a way that I was no longer scared of. That's the pinnacle to me of artistic ownership now. Now you can take that and that can be the through line from now through the rest of your life. You could make fucking field recordings of birds, spoken words, ambient piano records, a death-metal album, as long as they're all called Billy Howerdel. If you collaborate with people, you don't even need to give it a fucking name. "Now we come up with a moniker for it." Fuck it, dude.

HOWERDEL It's easy to hide behind for sure. Anyway, we're just yapping away. This is an interview.

PUCIATO That really felt like what we would just be talking about if we were sitting at a bar or something.

HOWERDEL Yeah, exactly. But noon on a Tuesday.

PUCIATO It's super cool because I feel like we've gone through a similar kind of trajectory of coming to terms with putting out solo stuff and then having to deal with it. You have to have similar feelings and worries and issues. I'm so stoked to see your stuff come out and your tour. I'm going to groupie along. I'm going to drive alongside the bus in a little sidecar.

HOWERDEL Awesome. You're going to the junk bunk.