A Perfect Circle is in a unique and widely envied place for a rock band. With an image as far from today’s DIY musicians as it gets, A Perfect Circle has released three albums in 12 years—just two of original material. They tour sparingly, and their members, most notably singer Maynard James Keenan, are involved with a number of other projects. So, it’s understandable why fans may have an ambiguous relationship with the group; loving their music and hating them at the same time for the lengthy delays between releases, and for wanting a new APC album even though Tool still has yet to release their swansong.
Below, the ever humble West Milford, NJ, born and raised Billy Howerdel attempts to describe his own music and talks self-confidence, A Perfect Circle’s future, and feeling like an asshole at your own birthday party.
In 2008, you and Maynard announced that you were working on new material but you didn’t start playing shows again as A Perfect Circle until last summer. What was behind the delay?
There was a Puscifer record put out around that time in 2007 or 2008. I put out Ashes Divide in 2008. So, you know I was working on it for a long time until then. We toured that summer and got done around 2009. Basically, two years later we did this fall tour that just passed… Yeah, there was a big downtime for me at least. Maynard, I think he was out with Tool at that time.
Yeah, Tool did some shows and then Puscifer did some shows.
Yeah, so I was just changing diapers and taking a break.
During that time were you not working on A Perfect Circle at all?
Well, I was still writing songs. Where they go is always the big question right until the very end, I guess right until they start getting more finished and where they feel like what band they should live within [Ashes Divide or A Perfect Circle]. But I’m writing songs for both, then and now. But, to be honest, it’s probably the least amount of writing I’ve done since I started playing music. I mean, I’ve always consistently played and written. And I dunno, for some reason now I’m just kinda taking a break from it and letting it settle a bit and see what comes out. I’m still writing, but not every single day.
Do you ever wish you could work faster? I know a lot of your fans certainly do.
(Laughs) I don’t know. There’s a necessity for the way, for the pace at which it’s created cause you might regret something later for sure. There’s a settling in period that I think is necessary. And just the production. And the production to me just comes from listening. I just keep listening and keep tweaking until I don’t hate it anymore. Things about when I’m writing music—things bother me, and I just keep going until it doesn’t bother me anymore.
There has been a lot of confusion as to how A Perfect Circle is going to release new material; whether you will just release singles, an EP or an album. Any idea how that will go?
It will be, at least for now, singles or packages or little EP-style releases. It’s good and bad. Maynard and I have differences in opinion as to how I would do it as to how he would do it. But, you know, in the spirit of doing the right thing, it makes sense to just put them out in smaller quantities more frequently. I guess I’m still a little hung up on the idea of doing a record and I’ve kinda let that go and just now tried to write with more of a limited release in mind. Before I was always trying to write a record that was cohesive within itself, just have the whole thing sound like a moment in time that was gonna be captured but not sound too dated but have a timelessness to it. There’s a lot of things that go into play and try to make 12 songs fit together, at least musically. And then, you know, Maynard has the job of figuring out lyrically of how this thing is gonna play out and what he’s going to say. So it’s nice to have that little cohesive part to it.
Now there’s a little more freedom to just do what comes to mind, at least the thought of it; we haven’t really released anything yet so we’ll see how it goes. But for now, there’s one song that’s done and we have intentions of playing it on this upcoming tour. And who knows? The other things that are more loosely done I hope see the light of day even on this tour—if not released in the very near future. It kind of just depends on the chemistry that we can get going on the road.
What was the first album you ever bought?
The first album by The Cars. I bought it at the Kinnelon A&P. That and Sound Exchange were like my introduction to interesting music. We were just kind of bombarded with rock radio when I was growing up that was what would be classic rock radio today. And I kind of liked it but didn’t love it.
I had my mom’s clock radio that only worked in her bedroom, and [it] only picked up this one station on that radio in that particular room that was a Long Island station. And it played everything from Elvis Costello to Killing Joke and everything in between… Dead Kennedys; things that were interesting to me. That’s kind of what changed everything for me as far as music goes.
It’s always cool hearing what somebody’s first album was because they always remember it.
Yeah, and I’m proud to say it was that. It could have been something Justin Bieber-esque, or something like that (laughs).
How do you think the hiatus for A Perfect Circle helped you as a musician or as a songwriter, or do you not think you’re better?
I don’t know. I don’t think I’m any better or different than I was before. I’m honestly sort of hungry to start writing again and get back into it. And one thing, I’m sure it sounds kind of ridiculous, is that I don’t really have a great place to work and I’m still kind of trying to find that place. And, unfortunately, some people would just say just go do it wherever, and I used to be able to do it wherever but there was more of my own space. It’s different living in a house now where there’s not this private escape to go to.
So, I’ve got a rehearsal studio that we go and play in but for some reason it’s tough for me to want to stay in that room for much more time than I have to. I’m just looking for that right spot to get into and feel comfortable in. But a lot of times that can happen in hotel rooms, as funny as that is. I mean it’s a pain in the ass because you have to lug everything, set it up and go. Or dressing rooms in bigger venues.
So, I’m hoping that on this tour we’ll get some writing in. But I’m kind of excited to do Ashes stuff on this tour too. I’m gonna just start recording since Jeff [Freidl] and Matt [McJunkins] will be there and we’ll maybe do a surprise show here and there. But we intend to put out some songs in the fall and go out and support those songs, and do a limited U.S. run in some select cities.
Do you find that you are inspired by your environments or is it more a comfort thing?
Yeah, I’m sure I am. I always said I wasn’t before, but I think it’s more of a comfort thing. A lot of times it’s just me staring at a computer screen. But it’s also the fact of not being heard, just having privacy and feeling okay about trying terrible ideas and letting one of them stick. It’s intimidating, even for me. I’ve been doing it for a long time and if you’re being observed, you just change what you do.
That’s why I’ve always been better at writing by myself than really collaborating from the beginning with people. I think I just am not that confident when it comes to just being able to improvise. You know, I can get away with it but everything sounds very pedestrian, very generic to me when it has to be in a rush. It’s rare when that spark happens right off the bat and I don’t like letting that watered-down songwriting come into my—I don’t know—wheel house of ideas that come in because I think it’s habit-forming. I think it’s like, if you’re around something bad long enough you start to have that bad wear off on you. Well, for me, that lack of ability to improvise can kind of make my songwriting stagnant, if that makes any sense at all (laughs).
Have you ever listened to a band and been able to tell that they were influenced by your work?
I’ve had people say it to me for sure. I’ve had some of my peers go, “Oh my God, listen to this. It’s very heavily influenced.” I mean, I guess I can hear stuff. Sometimes. It’s hard to say. I don’t know. I don’t hear it as much as other people do, but again, it’s like trying to describe your own music.
You get older people who ask you, “Oh, you’re a musician! What does your music sound like?” I’m like, “I don’t know.” I just say it’s rock and roll. I don’t know what to say.
Yeah, that’s difficult.
Yeah, I mean, “It’s really great music!” You know, like what are you going to say? It sounds like doves flying through fucking fog with a brilliant light backing it?
(Laughs) I could see that.
I should probably say that all the time: doves making love, flying through fog, flying through a great beam of light—with one of the doves taking a poop, I bet.
Is Josh Freese playing any of the shows?
No, he’s not. Somebody asked me before, “How are you able to get these schedules to line up?” And in the fall we were able to, kind of just barely. And then for the summer Josh had commitments with Weezer whom he’s been playing with and has been playing with for a few years now. And it just wasn’t going to line up and we tried doing some shifting and shuffling of schedules and he was gonna fly in and out for some gigs and then it got too complicated. And we were lucky enough to have Jeff Friedl at our disposal. Jeff plays with me in Ashes and I loaned him to Maynard in Puscifer and he’s been kind of a fixture in Puscifer. So it’s kind of the natural choice for us to have him sub for Josh in the summer tour.
Is Josh going to be playing on the new stuff?
Yeah. Josh already recorded on this new song that shall not be named. But yes, he will be in A Perfect Circleland again.
So you’re coming to New York to play two shows. Is there anything that you really look forward to about playing here?
Yeah. I mean, I’ve got tons of family and friends there—mostly friends that are left. It’s stressful playing New York because of that, but it’s fun. It’s pressure that you want to include everyone and get to see everyone who you’re friends with and who you grew up with. But if you ever had a birthday party and more than 20 people are there, it’s kind of overwhelming because you try to give everyone attention and you still kind of feel like an asshole at the end of the day because you can’t give everyone the same attention that you’d like to. So there’s that.
And then, playing in New York is special to me. It’s where I grew up. Well, I grew up in New Jersey but it’s where I went to see shows. Certainly, a highlight was right before my father passed away, my mom and dad got to see me play at Madison Square Garden. Certainly growing up there, if not any other place in the world, I think you know that venue.
Coming back, we wanted to do two shows and kind of split it up between two venues and with a day off in between specifically to kind of settle in and enjoy New York because it’s an amazing city.
So, you have two shows so that’s going to be like two birthdays.
Yeah, that’s right. Two birthdays.
A Perfect Circle will be playing at Hammerstein Ballroom tonight, July 12, and at Beacon Theatre Friday, July 15. More information at aperfectcircle.com.