A Perfect Circle's Maynard James Keenan and Billy Howerdel discuss 'Eat the Elephant,' the band's first new album in 14 years. Photo: Tim Cadiente
It’s been 14 years since A Perfect Circle last put out a new album, and frontman Maynard James Keenan is acutely aware of this fact. So much so that he found himself asking a litany of philosophical questions when making the group’s upcoming full-length, Eat the Elephant. “Do you reinvent yourself and try to look to the future?” he posits to Rolling Stone. “Do you do what you did before to satisfy the people who were there before? And when you’re no longer 27, are you even relevant? Does it matter? There were many, many questions, and you try not to let them direct everything you’re doing, but they were looming.”
And how did Keenan reconcile those doubts? “I just put the blinders on and do it,” he says. “I only really truly embraced the things that made sense and inspired me.”
What Keenan and his Perfect Circle partner, guitarist Billy Howerdel, made was somewhat of a departure from past albums – a quieter display of the complex emotional tableaus they made their calling card in the early 2000s. Gone largely are the walloping riffs of “Judith” and the propulsive rhythms of “Weak and Powerless.” Eat the Elephant is a moody, sensitive portrait of a band that decided to grow up and make a record that reflects where they are now as artists rather than trying to recapture the past. The group has released two songs from the album so far, the relaxed “Disillusioned” (seemingly about a society that’s gotten lost in its own self-interest) and “The Doomed” (a more upbeat song with lyrics about survival of the fittest).
Howerdel first discussed working on the album with Keenan – who splits his time between his other bands Tool and Puscifer, and his winemaking business in Arizona – about a year and a half ago, and from there they just waited for the right chunk of time to focus on it. “The bottom line is Maynard is a busy guy and when his schedule allows, he knows that I’m going to be interested in making an A Perfect Circle record,” Howerdel says. “So he reached out and said he saw a window and that’s what we’re doing. It was as simple as that.” The guitarist started concentrating on getting the songs together about a year ago and decided to bring in an outside producer, Dave Sardy (Incubus, ZZ Top), for the first time. Howerdel started tracking music last summer; they paused for a brief tour and finally mastered the album in January. “It’s been a furious ending process this winter,” Howerdel says.
Today, the band is officially announcing that the album will be coming out on April 20th, and they’ve released another single, the swaggering “TalkTalk,” which finds Keenan trying unusual new things with his voice as he lambastes falsely self-righteous people in his lyrics.
Keenan says the whole process has just been a constant push to the finish line. “We just had to dig in and do it,” he says. “Once the [wine grape] harvest was out of the way, we started to get things done with the music in between picking and processing. It’s pretty much been on my plate this whole time.” So he simply sat down and ate the elephant? “Oh, yeah. One bite at a time.”
How did you decide to start working on a new A Perfect Circle album? Maynard Keenan: I had a lot of things I needed to do, but it sounded like things weren’t, um, going forward so I had time to shift focus and dabble in something else and see where it would go. With everything I do, there are deadlines for progress. So if I see a spot like, “Eh, there’s just not a lot of movement,” I’ll shift gears.
Billy, when did you begin work on the music for the album?
Billy Howerdel: God, I don’t know. In the Eighties? [Laughs] There’s one on this record that’s older, but I won’t say which one. I would say that 75 percent of them are from the past three years. There’s a bunch of songs that didn’t make it that I think are really strong and that will leave us open for the future.
How did the two of you work out the songs?
Keenan: He sent little pieces, maybe 10 or 20 things to start with. Like most guys who play guitar or write music, he had extra time on his hands and was adding things and layering things to the songs. It wasn’t until Dave [Sardy], the producer, said, “Let me just mute all these extra things” that I heard the song – the drum beat and the melody – and I could hear enough of the song that it leapt forward. Howerdel: Every song is different. You never know how it’s going to come out. Some of them come quickly and some are this painful evolution.
What song went through a painful evolution?
Howerdel: “TalkTalk” was a song that was one of my favorites but he wanted to switch the time signature. Originally it was in 4/4 and then it became 3/4. That stumped me for a long time and was painful. It was one of those things where I have to trust when he has an intuition about something. At the end of the day, I’m in service to inspire him and bring his best to the table.
Today you put out “TalkTalk.” What can you say about the creation of that song?
Keenan: That one went through a lot of incarnations. It sounded a certain way when I first heard it, but I didn’t really hear anything in it. Then Dave and Billy striped some things down, changed tempos and time signatures and I went, “Oh, there it is” and latched on.”
And a big part of the song is the line, “Don’t be the problem/Be the solution.” Why was that on your mind? Keenan: Just broad strokes. With everything going on nowadays, it’s about accountability.
Billy, you scored the movie D-love recently. How did that influence what you did with the music on the album? Howerdel: It was very helpful. “The Contrarian” and “The Doomed” came from that in different forms. The movie had flashbacks to Romania in this girl’s childhood and I had to get into that Eastern European mindset and it put me in that place for writing. And with writing, the purpose of writing is in service to the movie and, like I said, with A Perfect Circle I’m trying to get it the best for Maynard in a similar way.
Were either of you surprised by the other’s approach to songs? Keenan: No, not really. The direction he took was in the way we had been going. I just hear what’s there and if I’m not hearing what I think I need to hear I’ll have him change the signature or mute everything but the drums or the piano, break it down more. The first three songs on the record are a matter of me erasing or muting instruments or changing tempos, keys and time signatures. Howerdel: “The Contrarian” and “The Doomed” were both similar in the way they started. On “The Contrarian,” I think Maynard heard it much simpler. I wanted to expand that one so I went against what I was feeling, but when I heard his vocal for that song, I was blown away. I don’t know that it sounds like Maynard, but it sounds like some of the best Maynard vocals I’ve ever heard. You could mistake it for someone else for sure.
There’s a lot to the vocals on the album and not all of it sounds like Maynard. At first I wondered if Billy was singing, too. Howerdel: Yeah. I’ll say for the record, Maynard sang every vocal on this record. Before, we’d talked about me doing quite a bit of vocals on the album, but when he started he was on a roll. It’s pretty impressive. The range is different, the tonality. But all the chances he took really paid off.
Maynard, how has doing Puscifer for a decade changed your approach to singing?
Keenan: It’s been an education just being a vocalist rather than a barker and paying more attention to harmony, tone and texture. Also it’s a band that has a lot more piano and rhythm in addition to guitars so it leaves more space for the vocals to explore, expand and create textures. I’m sure it played into this.
Do you feel like you created a continuity within A Perfect Circle’s music that stretches the 14-year gap between albums? Keenan: I don’t know, because you’re in the middle of it. And having done Puscifer for the last 10 years, that’s the only perspective I have. So I see connections between those things. I guess if I really step back, I can probably hear connections with older things we’ve done with A Perfect Circle. There are certainly some nods to what we used to do on “Delicious” and “By and Down the River.”
Did it feel like it had been 14 years to you when you started working on this? Keenan: I feel like I’m kind of like a dog. You could be gone for a day or an hour and I’m going to be happy to see you minutes later. My attention span isn’t that developed. I would hope at least the album feels cohesive.
How did you approach the lyrics on this album? Keenan: Like I always do: piece by piece, word by word. Puzzles.Depending on the tempos and moods, key lines will come to me while driving with the music in the player.
What do you mean by puzzles? Keenan: Everything is a puzzle. You’ve got to put the pieces together and they all form a map or story. You have to be cohesive and you have to make a literary map – start putting those Latin pieces together to form a map and it all makes sense.
What does the title, Eat the Elephant,mean to you?
Howerdel: You’d have to ask Maynard.
Keenan: Yeah, I’m not going to go there.
No? Keenan: I never explain any of that stuff.
It struck me as political commentary. Keenan: It could be a lot of things. It’s not one thing. None of them are one thing.
You made a press bio that contains the line, “With a title likeEat the Elephant, A Perfect Circle’s new record has clear political overtones that Keenan admits could stir up controversy.”
Keenan: You’re going to go straight there, huh? Well Dan Dunn, the guy who wrote American Wino, wrote that. I told him, “Bios are generally boring. I have an idea where Billy was cryogenically frozen and woken up today. Would you write that?” It sums up what it would like to be frozen in 2004 and wake up in 2018 and go, “What the fuck?” So he went with it, and I think he did a great job [laughs]. …
You don’t want to be too topical, because then you date your art. But there’s definitely a lot of iconic things that go on nowadays that are wroth mentioning that I feel like we just take as rote, we just accept it like it’s standard. Imagine being cryogenically frozen for 14 years and waking up and going, “What are you people doing to your faces? Why are you doing that? You all look like Whoville. You’re not fooling anybody – you don’t look better or younger. You just look different.” So I guess I just don’t understand.
On the subject of vanity and selfishness, there was a big hullabaloo online recently about 60 or so A Perfect Circle fans being kicked out of one of your concerts for taking photos –
Keenan: [Interrupts tersely] They’re not being ejected from our shows for taking photos. They’re being ejected because they’re recording things and they’re annoying the fuck out of their neighbors.
Going back to the subject of waking up 14 years later, imagine being cryogenically frozen and finding out that Donald Trump was president.
Keenan: I mean you could wake up and it’s Corey Feldman. Like, “What the fuck are you talking about right now? Ted Nugent’s running for senator? Come on. You’re kidding, right?”
Luckily, Kid Rock was joking. Keenan: Yeah, no kidding [laughs].
On “Hourglass” you sing about plutocrats and “Republicrats” in a robotic, sort of Kraftwerk tone. How did you come up with that approach?
Keenan: It’s just sonics. You listen to what’s happening and you start to adjust fire according to where you’re hitting. Howerdel: The original version of the song was much more subdued, much more like a lullaby in the chorus in the beginning. But Maynard responded to it and the vocals were much more bombastic and stylized. So the music had to meet him. That song was definitely one of the ones I had in my folder of music for Ashes Divide or a Billy Howerdel project because it was much more dance. It definitely has a heavier disco driving beat, which just became more angular in his final version and German in spirit. It was much more Depeche Mode in essence and got more angular.
Another interesting vocal thing is the first line of “By and Down the River.” You sing it with a little, maybe Indian inflection. Can you tell me about that? Keenan: That’s something I’ve done for a while. I’m not sure where I picked that up. Probably on the road listening to various world music – a lot of people that Peter Gabriel brought to the Passion soundtrack for The Last Temptation of Christ. I was listening to a lot of that stuff before the film came out, so it was really nice to hear him put all these people together on one film soundtrack. That could be the influence.
Also regarding influences, “So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish” references the deaths of Muhammad Ali, Carrie Fisher and David Bowie. Have you been really affected by these deaths?
Keenan: I think it was a big curveball for a lot of people to have that concentration of celebrities, people that are iconic, exit. I’m sure it’s happened in prior generations – all of a sudden, an exodus – but the immediacy of social media made it more impactful with more of a rapid fire to be able to see that list every day of people that you were familiar with over the years passing. And at the age of 53, you start to take it pretty seriously.
Did you take any of these deaths particularly hard, personally? Keenan: Not necessarily hard. I mean, that’s life. It is temporary. It’s always been something that I’ve embraced. But you only have so much time, do stuff with it. When all those people are leaving, I guess it’s a good opportunity to remind people of that: Pay attention.
You played a few of these new songs live recently. Did any of them change from doing them live? Howerdel: A little bit of “Feathers” and “Hourglass” got tweaked a little bit. We tried some things live where we’d extend a section here or there and it went back. I think things changed vocally probably more than anything, but when it came to recording the finals, I played live what I consider the important lead elements of the song. I think “Hourglass” worked live, but I think what we did on the record worked for the record. I don’t know that we won’t go back to the way it was live before. And with “The Doomed,” nothing’s really changed. We just got live and made the best presentation of it and I think it sounds good.
Was it easier for you, Billy, working with Dave?
Howerdel: It was easier in the sense that I didn’t have to be responsible for the [music] files. In the past I just worried too much about, “How am I going to get my gear down to the studio or do this or that?” And then I was able to say, “OK, I hired someone to help me do stuff.” [Laughs] I had someone come with me who could help me. He would do whatever I needed him to do, whether it was editing or setting up my rig or getting the computer synced up with Dave’s. So it was a very different experience.
What did Dave add to the songs?
Howerdel: The title track, “Eat the Elephant,” was a song that was really important to me. Two people I know had committed suicide in the course of a week and there was a lot of emotion that went into finishing that. Dave took that song, which was just a demo, and took my vocal off and simplified it and gave it to Maynard, who loved it. He took it and ran with it. Then Maynard wrote and sang all the lyrics and vocals.
Was it any different when you brought it to the band – James Iha, Matt McJunkins and Jeff Friedl?
Howerdel: Honestly, Maynard and I worked on this record for the most part. Matt played bass on a couple songs and Jeff played some drums. At the end of the day, because I wasn’t recording, I’m not sure exactly which drummer it was that made it onto each track, but there were multiple drummers for the record.
Maynard, you used to say that you felt like A Perfect Circle and Tool were too beholden to record labels and album-release cycles. It seems to me you’ve been able to reclaim a lot of your schedule because of the way the industry has changed in the last 10 years. Keenan: Yeah. I think so. But I think the beauty of labels and deadlines is that artists, free spirits and creative thinkers hide behind them, but it’s actually just because they’re lazy and don’t want to be told what to do. A deadline is helpful. And if you miss it, you miss it, but you have to hold yourself to it as best you can.
Speaking of which, Danny Carey has been saying Tool would be releasing a new album this year. Can you say anything about that, Maynard?
Keenan: [Pauses] No.
It’s just something a lot of people are curious about.
Keenan: [Longer pause] Yeah, I’ve got nothing.