A Perfect Circle | Photo by Vern Breitenbucher

A Perfect Circle Makes a Full Turn

Guitarist Billy Howerdel prefers collaborating—not competing—with his band’s enigmatic frontman

A Perfect Circle is that rare kind of rock ensemble that defies easy categorization and commercial expectations. It has been 14 years since the band released an album, but it hasn’t dampened enthusiasm—or even concert ticket sales. This time last year, for example, I saw A Perfect Circle perform a sold-out show for more than 2,000 fans in Las Vegas, and fans reacted as if a new record had just dropped. Everyone left satisfied and impressed. Indeed, the band, with their dark, surging music and their lyrics of spiritual alienation, resonate better in the current moment.

Enter the just-released Eat the Elephant, APC’s fourth full-length. After several lineup changes in the band (which currently boasts ex–Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha) and a lengthy touring hiatus (from 2004 to 2010), the disc is a crushing statement about what it means to exist in an uncertain moment. Caught in a crossfire of tech companies scraping user data, politicians exploiting collective fears and religion still governing the actions of billions, we wait for a savior to fix everything instead of taking action ourselves. Most epic rock acts strive to create escapism, a safe space into which heavy-music fans can retreat. In contrast, APC addresses our insecurities head-on. Guitarist Billy Howerdel, though, won’t admit he and frontman/cowriter Maynard James Keenan (Tool, Puscifer) are spiritually confrontational.

“That’s for everyone else to interpret and figure out,” says Howerdel during a recent phone chat with Seven. “Once we record [an album] and release it, it’s for fans to experience. I’m not going to insert an opinion. Thankfully, when it comes to music, no one else connects with it in exactly the same way.”

Songs on Eat the Elephant connect, but often like a Conor McGregor striking attack. Powerful single “The Doomed” inverts Jesus’ beatitudes, turning His blessings into curses. There’s something about the music—hard-charging drum breaks contrasting with a gentle piano-backed chorus—that underscores the black irony, the cruelty, of Keenan’s lyrics: Blessed are the fornicates / May we bend down to be their whores / Blessed are the rich / May we labor, deliver them more.

“He sent me [the lyrics] first,” says Howedrel, “and I could see they were intense. I realized the music could go in a lot of directions, but I never have a grand scheme when I collaborate with Maynard. That’s the beauty of our relationship—there are no egos and it’s strictly a musical conversation. I have to say this: I’m always impressed by what Maynard puts forward.”

A Perfect Circle | Photo by Vern Breitenbucher

Another standout track, “The Contrarian,” built on a foundation of lute and synth chords, is fascinating, because it warns us about people who lure others into false debate and premeditated conflict for their own sake. Beware the Antichrist with, to quote the song’s lyrics, sleight of tongue in hand.

“I’m more fascinated by what others think of the song,” dodges Howerdel again. “I can imagine someone feeling worn-down from the circus of politics is going to feel differently about it than someone who enjoys keeping up with the news. I see my job more like a film composer, someone hired to bring the emotional stakes up and down, to evoke emotions. What I really want listeners to experience—it may sound cliché—is to open their hearts to feeling vulnerable to something.”

The most challenging song on the new album for APC fans might be “So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish.” It’s anthemic, upbeat and pop, even referencing Willy Wonka, but the words soon take an apocalyptic turn.

“It’s a juxtaposition you might miss when listening with blurry ears. When I go over this list of songs I’ve written, I notice there is always a rhyme or reason to what I give Maynard,” Howerdel says. “I’m always looking to push back or contrast to a degree.”

Howerdel, 47, and Keenan, 53, have worked independently since the band’s 1999 inception, composing in private and sharing only when each feels he has a series of riffs or a set of lyrics worth considering. The APC guitarist insists he’s not the best improviser, but he has no problem getting a song realized in the studio or during rehearsal.

“I tend to generate more sketches than are necessary, because I don’t often know where Maynard intends to land. We write in isolation, but there’s enough chemistry so that I can approach his lyrics like a film cue, and then take the song somewhere interesting and different.”

A Perfect Circle plays Las Rageous April 20. For more info, go to lasrageous.com.

Vegas Seven