Maynard James Keenan, Billy Howerdel on A Perfect Circle's Return to a "Doomed" World | Revolver

Maynard James Keenan, Billy Howerdel on A Perfect Circle's Return to a "Doomed" World

"Cutting the head off the snake's not going to do shit. It's not really a snake, is it? A Medusa."
apcopen.jpg, Travis Shinn; grooming by Brooke Barker
A Perfect Circle's Maynard James Keenan and Billy Howerdel, Los Angeles, 2018
photograph by Travis Shinn; grooming by Brooke Barker

The parched hills of northern Arizona prepared Maynard James Keenan for moments like this. He's scrambling up a hillside that is burnt black from recent wildfires on the outskirts of Los Angeles, wearing dress shoes and a military jacket with metal buttons displaying the crescent-moon insignia of his band A Perfect Circle. Glued to his scalp is a wig of blonde-brown braids that bounce with every step. It's not his usual attire back home in Jerome, Arizona, amid the soil and grapes of his Merkin Vineyards, where he's the hands-on winemaker and gentleman farmer. But when the singer reaches the top, he stands comfortably just inches away from a cliff that overlooks an empty dirt road far below. "That doesn't bother me," he says. "I'm a goat."

Nearby is guitarist Billy Howerdel, his sometime musical partner, tall and hairless in the afternoon sun, dressed formally for the occasion in a dark gray suit, striped tie and new shoes right out of the box. They've come to this barren landscape to pose for a suitably dramatic magazine cover, timed to the release of a new album, Eat the Elephant, the first from A Perfect Circle in 14 long years.

Where they stand is a short walk up from a neighborhood of homes that barely escaped destruction by fire two months earlier, except for one: an abandoned house with a hole burnt through the roof and "Keep Out!" spray-painted by the door. Around them are the charred skeletons of dead trees, but the ground is already sprouting small bits of green, painting a landscape of natural renewal on top of total devastation. It's something like this moment for A Perfect Circle, which is experiencing a new chapter of restoration.

Back in 2004, the band went unexpectedly quiet after the election-year release of a third album, eMOTIVe. For the first time in APC's career, there was no major tour, and the band scattered to other projects. Howerdel began a solo recording career as Ashes Divide, and Keenan redirected his focus back to the punishing, contemplative metal of Tool, his growing vineyard and a surreal new side project of music and comedy called Puscifer. But A Perfect Circle was missed. Keenan had connected deeply with fans — many converted Tool diehards, some entirely new to the singer — through APC, and in a different way. His work with Howerdel had expanded his range as a singer and lyricist, as he explored subtle shades of sound and message, stretching from aching to explosive. Still, the years went by, and the hiatus of A Perfect Circle began to look open-ended.

"Managers and agents call it leaving cash on the table," Keenan says of the band's long hibernation, sharing a laugh with APC's manager during a break in the day's photo session. "I knew it was something we were going to end up going back to someday. But you have to accept maybe it's never going to happen again. You have to be OK with that and let it go. But it came back around. I saw an opportunity to take it up a notch."

In 2010, APC began occasionally touring again after an absence of six years. But the chance to create new music finally emerged from the same scenario that originally birthed A Perfect Circle at the end of the Nineties: Keenan's frustration at the slow pace of progress in recording a new Tool album. "I had this other looming project that can't seem to go forward, as much as I've tried, every magic word in the book that I tried," says Keenan. "It's just no different — and worse because there's pressure now, and what are we? Chinese Democracy II or III? So I saw a window."

That opening meant he could commit himself to making Eat the Elephant. "Having conversations with Billy, it seemed like he was ready. If I were to do another Puscifer record," he goes on, "I'm going to get fucking murdered in my sleep because people are going to keep blaming that project for the delay — when it's not."

maynard.jpg, Travis Shinn
photograph by Travis Shinn

These aren't random career moves. The man is organized. Between the winery and his three bands, he keeps as busy as he wants, or needs, to be. When Tool or any other project is looming but fails to progress by a particular date, it crosses a trip line that sends it to the back burner (or middle burner) and Keenan goes in a different direction. The singer pulls out his cell and shows a long list full of dates and projects/tasks/deadlines filling the screen, with few open days other than a weeklong escape to Hawaii. "I'm already booked up until probably March 1st of 2019," he says. "I already know where I'm gonna be."

From the beginning, Keenan always insisted A Perfect Circle was no side project, and he was ready to prioritize it once again. He also sensed a need in Howerdel to get some music out. "Seeing his need ignited my need," says Keenan, who began diving into the guitarist's new material. "He had puzzles and I'm so fucked when it comes to a puzzle. You put that puzzle in front of me, and I'm like hearing 'shave and a haircut' — I gotta say ''wo bits!' He showed me some stuff: OK, it's probably time." The music had the same kind of seductive melodies as always from Howerdel, but with a lighter touch years removed from the group's muscular debut. "I always want to do more," says Howerdel, who spent the years between APC releases working on movie and videogame soundtracks and writing a second album from his solo project Ashes Divide that he never completed. (Some of that album's material evolved into tracks for Eat the Elephant.)

Howerdel shared some musical ideas and tracks-in-progress, and Keenan responded with words and subtle vocal performances that were partly inspired by a strange political year in these United States. "The new album touches on all of those things and my opinions are not veiled," says Keenan, who has been increasingly based in the rural flyover territory of Jerome (population approximately 500) for nearly two decades. He was first brought out there by Tim Alexander of Primus, and he's since carved out a way of life there, not a vacation spot or sideline to his music. "It's about reconnecting and taking responsibility for yourself. There's accountability with that and in yourself. What are you doing to help your family? What are you doing to look at yourself and figure out what part of the problem you are? I don't think any of this stuff is going to be fixed. Pointing a finger at Trump isn't going to get anything done. And yeah, he's a buffoon. He's not the only buffoon.

"Cutting the head off the snake's not going to do shit. It's not really a snake, is it? A Medusa," he goes on. "I live in Arizona. I work in my cellar. I am the winemaker, I run the forklift, I clean the press — I have friends who are better mechanics so if anything breaks I go to someone who knows it better than I do. My dad runs my greenhouse. I am the one with my wife who gathers the eggs and we walk the ducks next to the orchard every day. There's a hands-on approach to those things, and I think that's something we've lost touch with. All the bitching and posting on Facebook to think you're going to change something, it's not going to do anything. We need to reconnect."

As Keenan winds down from the band's photo session, the conversation turns to current events. It's a day after another mass shooting in America, this one at a high school in Parkland, Florida, where 17 teenagers and staff were killed. It's in that context that one of the new album's songs, "TalkTalk," leaps out with a provocative lyric that includes "thoughts and prayers," which happens to be the usual response from leaders unwilling or unable to deal with the body count.

"I come from a Christian background, so it's that idea of, 'Well, I'm going to pray for you.' Why don't you get off your ass and come help me?" says Keenan, who otherwise avoids explaining or picking apart his lyrics.

"There's always tragedies, hurricanes, floods, accidents, human-driven accidents, whatever, and it's this immediate reaction of this 'thoughts and prayers' thing," Keenan says. "I know people are going to take it in a political sense — that it's a call to action to change the laws or whatever. That's such a boring reactionary response to me ... especially with gun control. I think we have a much larger problem with antidepressants than we do with guns. Most of the people who are doing that have turned the voice off in their head to say, 'I probably shouldn't do that.'"

As the album began coming together, thoughts of death also loomed in the mind of Howerdel, as he contemplated the passing of his cultural heroes. He communicated those feelings to Keenan, and they emerged in a song called "So Long, And Thanks for All the Fish." "I just said the death of heroes was one of the things that was hitting me hard. It just feels like we lost so many important influential people in such a short period of time," says Howerdel. "Bowie's death hit me particularly hard and, yeah, it shakes you up and it's what we do. We're emotional and try to get that on paper or on the guitar. I didn't have words for it."

He began one piece of music with the working title "Dreams," inspired by his memories of Robin Williams and the 1998 film What Dreams May Come. "It was just that premise of going through hell for your love and it was a heavy one," Howerdel says of the movie. "I'm not writing the lyrics, per se, but I'm just writing music from being jolted by something." (The song appears as "Disillusioned" on the new album.)

On Eat the Elephant, Howerdel worked with producer Dave Sardy. And rather than collaborate side-by-side with Keenan on each track from beginning to end, most of the vocals were done in Arizona and engineered by Puscifer's Mat Mitchell. It's a process Keenan now prefers for all his projects. The singer also traveled to the guitarist's home studio in L.A. "to kind of nudge things forward" and go over ideas.

Keenan was back at the vineyard in time for the harvest, and traded recordings back and forth with Howerdel online. "We were actually on parallel paths, getting things done," says Keenan. "When I start to dig into the content, the melodies, the words," the singer explains, he becomes something more like "an Italian mother in the kitchen: 'Get the fuck out. Dinner's not ready, get out. Need the kids out of the kitchen!'"

The music that Howerdel created included shimmering walls of guitar, and what he got back from Keenan would often shift a song into surprising directions. "Some of it was kind of shocking, in a good way," says the guitarist. "The Contrarian" begins with the gentle plucking of harp, then a beat kicks in and Keenan purrs, "Hello, he lied ..." Howerdel says the singer's vocal "sounded like a Sixties girl band kind of approach, which I thought was really amazing and fitting for what it was." He marvels that the scat vocal on "Disillusioned" "is one of my favorite things I ever heard Maynard do on any project."

The struggle to construct a full hour of new music is reflected by the album title, which comes from an old cliché: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. On the title track, Keenan sings of "the task at hand" from the warmest, softest side of his voice to urge listeners to "just take the stand, just take the swing, just take the bite, just go all in." In this case, the album is the elephant. "Just where to begin eludes me, without you to remind me/Just begin."

"This album wouldn't get done if we didn't get in and start digging and chewing. We did it in under a year, from start to finish," Keenan says. "But it wouldn't have got done sitting in a room with us going back and forth, dicking around and overthinking things. Having him stop and dick with my vocals when he's supposed to be playing guitar wouldn't have worked. As a parallel team, we had to just get this done."

There is a widening scope to his vocals that can sometimes seem like more than one voice is at its center, even as it's always recognizably Keenan. He says that range of sounds has always been there, rooted in the classical vocal training he got as a baritone in his high school choir, singing medleys of the Byrds, Joni Mitchell and Crosby, Stills & Nash songs. "You really find your potential when there is space," Keenan explains of his place within the sounds created by Howerdel. "When you come up with a brutal band like Tool, and you're having to bark over Marshall cabinets and Bam Bam the Drummer, you're not really able to get into the nuance of the vocal until they shut the fuck up for a minute and you can get some of that out."

The years of experience have also given him more control over his voice. He compares it to the lessons of Brazilian jiu-jitsu and the martial arts grandmaster Hélio Gracie, who emphasized technical skill over speed and strength, which fade with age. "You're not going to be strong and fast anymore — you've got to be more clever," says Keenan, himself a jiu-jitsu devotee. Likewise, some of the greatest rock singers, from Jagger to Cornell, gained depth and ability that eclipsed the physical range they enjoyed as younger men.

"This is a perishable item," Keenan says of his singing voice. "So you start realizing, 'OK, this is how I take care of this thing.' And then it presents you with all these options because now you're stronger in ways you weren't before — more control, more subtlety."

Keenan still keeps an apartment in L.A., and a week ago he had about 10 friends over to hear the new album. In a week, Keenan and Howerdel would be off to Europe to promote the record. After two decades as a recording artist, the circus of promotion activity that surrounds a new album release is less exciting than it used to be. "The only real joy that I find is that I get to see people that I haven't seen in a long time," he says. "" just put the album on and make some food. I'm no longer listening for the mastering. I'm no longer listening for pops or scratches or whether this should come up or that goes down. It's just letting my friends experience it. If I hear something I don't like, it's too late. Let it go."

billy.jpg, Travis Shinn
photograph by Travis Shinn

Before there was A Perfect Circle, Howerdel spent a decade as a guitar tech on the road and in the studio, traveling within the crews for Nine Inch Nails, Smashing Pumpkins, Guns N' Roses and Tool. He was fully committed to the tradition of dues-paying on his way to his own rock-star dreams, just as Lemmy was once a roadie for Hendrix and Nirvana's Krist Novoselic drove a beat-up van for the Melvins. He also genuinely loved working on the technical side for other artists.

"I just wanted to be a part of the circus, of the energy," Howerdel says now. While experimenting with music at home, his years as a roadie showed him how things worked, not just musically, but hearing all the chatter about managers, accountants and lawyers. Axl Rose heard Howerdel's music and was very encouraging, even if Howerdel kept his expectations grounded in reality.

"I was losing my hair early and it was the late Eighties and you know how that kind of went," he says with a smile. "You were either a skinhead or you were asked if you were on your way to chemo, so that might have influenced some things. ... I think being around the business for long enough, I kind of saw how things went with many different bands, different ways of working, different drama, different pitfalls, different successes."

He met Keenan during the earliest days of Tool, when the band was on a low budget tour of Europe as opening act to the furious punk-funk band Fishbone. Howerdel was on the Fishbone crew and connected with Keenan through a shared sense of the absurd and ""engthy bonding in Europe with very meager accommodations," remembers the guitarist. "You kind of go through war and get to know people."

A few years later Howerdel and his girlfriend split up, and he packed up his things and drove across town to Hollywood, where a friend was celebrating a birthday at the Gaslight nightclub. Howerdel planned to grab a drink and find a hotel room. But he ran into Keenan, who invited the guitarist to move into his rented house in North Hollywood. He describes it now as "a little 1920s Hansel and Gretel cottage overgrown with ivy." The roof was crooked, and a tree's roots had lifted the foundation beneath the main bedroom. Squirrels and possums lived in the attic.

Keenan already had another roommate there, and Howerdel took the small bedroom just vacated by Pepper Spray Jerry, who marketed pepper spray from home, along with laser pointers, Tasers and other mail order ephemera. (He is now one of the dudes behind fidget spinners.) Keenan was home a lot in those days, and he began hearing music coming out of Howerdel's bedroom. Among the songs was "Breña," a shimmering, explosive track that was one of the first songs his new roommate ever wrote.

"I purposefully didn't shove it down anyone's throat at all," Howerdel says now. "It was kind of like: thin walls, small house, roommates, so you're inevitably gonna pass by it."

Besides, Howerdel imagined a woman's voice singing over his meticulously constructed tracks, and was looking around for the next Elizabeth Fraser, ethereal chanteuse from the Cocteau Twins. When Keenan heard it, he imagined himself within those songs. He suggested a partnership, which became A Perfect Circle.

In some crucial ways, it was a sideways step from the modern prog of Tool, but the music initially shared some of the same heaviness, with swirling guitars and thundering beats. Since Keenan was already a platinum-selling rocker with songs on the radio and videos in heavy MTV rotation, there was naturally a bidding war for the new duo, which signed with Virgin Records. More important to the band was the musical communication between Howerdel and Keenan, which began with the songs "Hollow" and "Orestes."

"He'd sing to something that I thought was just a puzzle and he figured it out and where it was going to go," recalls Howerdel. "That's the musical conversation. See if it really works ... He'd go, 'OK, I can chew on this,' and take it to another level."

The first album was called Mer de Noms (French for Sea of Names). The sound was heavy on atmosphere and operatic sweep, balancing thundering guitar grind with delicate acoustic textures, leaving room for Keenan to wail messages from playful to deeply serious. At times progressive, psychedelic, delicate, crushing, it also inspired the singer to confront some personal anguish, naming the band's first single, "Judith," for his mother, who was left partially paralyzed from an aneurysm when he was a child. He raged against the contradictions of faith in the face of tragedy: "Your lord, your Christ/He did this, took all you had/And left you this way."

A Perfect Circle represented Keenan's first real move beyond the sludgy prog confines of Tool, finding in the project another formidable act with its own distinct sound and purpose. He arrived onstage in disguise, adopting a new persona by wearing a series of longhaired wigs. Inevitably, the existence of A Perfect Circle enraged some Tool fans, certain that this extracurricular activity was a threat to the future of their beloved band. That notion seems quaint now: The glacial pace of Tool's creative process for recording new music is clearly built in, seemingly beyond the group's control. Nothing can speed it up or slow it down.

A Perfect Circle followed with Thirteenth Step in 2003; eMOTIVe came only a year later. Often overlooked as merely a covers album, it saw A Perfect Circle quickly rework "Imagine" by John Lennon, "What's Going On" by Marvin Gaye, Devo's "Freedom of Choice" and songs by Fear, Crucifix, Joni Mitchell, plus craft two original cuts, as an urgent reaction to a time of war and a presidential election. "I mean, we wrote 12 songs — those are not the original songs," Keenan says. "The words are the same or similar, but we completely reconstructed an entire set of music for that album."

Then there was silence. Six years went by. Howerdel had a kid and scored a videogame, recorded and toured with Ashes Divide. Years slipped away and A Perfect Circle seemed to recede into the distance.

Then, one night in 2010, Howerdel was asleep when the phone rang. His wife woke him up: "Maynard's on the phone." The guitarist was still in a fog when he heard Keenan's voice: "Hey, do you know how to play 'Bohemian Rhapsody?"

"I was literally just in dream mode," Howerdel recalls now. "And I go, What? And he goes, 'Yeah, he knows it.'" Before hanging up, Keenan told him to meet up at a rehearsal space the next day and said, "We'll work it out."

Howerdel discovered later that Keenan and Queen guitarist Brian May were set to perform the signature Queen epic at a special concert hosted by Activision, but May wasn't available. Howerdel was the last-minute replacement. He had never played the song in his life. And he had about 40 hours left to learn the tune and piece together one of the best-known solos in classic rock.

Not long after, Howerdel found himself rising from the stage floor in front of thousands of videogame fanatics at L.A.'s Staples Center arena. Plugged into an old Vox amp with a Gibson Les Paul, Howerdel approximated the old glam riffs, and added textures of his own, as he and Keenan were accompanied by the strings and woodwinds of the L.A. Philharmonic and a large choir in red robes. "I was so nervous. I never played that solo perfectly in any rehearsal," he remembers. "The best I ever did it was live, during the show." As the song faded out, Keenan hugged the guitarist, then grabbed his ass as they descended back into the stage.

It was over quick, and Howerdel never played the song again. (Keenan later recorded it with Puscifer.) But the performance had reunited them in a meaningful way. "We had a moment and it was just, 'Hey, that was fun and we should do it again,'" Howerdel says. Months later, they reemerged as A Perfect Circle for a short tour, performing a different album each night in a handful of cities, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Las Vegas. They relearned every one of their songs. "That felt like, OK, we're brushing off the cobwebs." On the tour's very first night, in Tempe, Arizona, Keenan turned to the crowd and announced: "Don't get me wrong. I'm glad to see you, but this is about us reconnecting with each other."

A year later, they were back on the road again for a longer tour. They have toured periodically ever since. Last spring's dates across the U.S. were "probably one of the funnest times I've ever had on tour," Howerdel says. "I love it. Especially playing live, gosh, there's no other way to put it: I just feel like I was built for it, touring, playing. I loved teching, too, but now I get to do the things I love about teching and play at the same time — program sounds, fiddling with gear, this and that. But being out in the rig backstage and recording is kind of the best of both worlds."

At the end of the day, the photo crew is packing up, and Keenan has removed his wig. He's out of the APC uniform and wearing a T-shirt with the face of Danny Trejo, which he got from the Machete actor's L.A. taco stand. Keenan seems relaxed, but it's only a brief moment away from that long list in his pocket.

The latest APC tour begins soon, launching once more from Arizona. Keenan has been doing this on a big scale for nearly three decades now. The earliest struggles are long past, and the success that erupted in the Nineties is well established, but he's still driven to keep moving and fill all his days.

"I'm still trying to prove that I can do better than what I did yesterday in my own way," Keenan says. "Back then, you get caught up in the competition, you get caught up in the game, a lot of ego. I feel like we let some of that go. You can't let all of it go because you're up onstage for a reason, right?"