A Perfect Circle’s Billy Howerdel Offers Insight Into the Long-Awaited ‘Eat the Elephant’

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Today marks the end of a nearly 15-year wait for fans of A Perfect Circle, the progressive alt-rock band co-captained by Billy Howerdel and Tool's Maynard James Keenan. Although the band has been reasonably active since 2010, it hadn't released a an album of original material since 2003's Thirteenth Step, a delay exacerbated by Keenan returning to Tool and spending more time on his Puscifer project, while Howerdel stayed busy with Ashes Divide.

The piano notes that kick off Eat the Elephant's opening title track indicate the band's shift towards a more keyboard-based sound, more reliant on textures and layers than big guitar moments, and partially inspired by Howerdel's recent work on a film score.

We spoke with a sleep-deprived Howerdel a few hours before he hopped on the tour bus for A Perfect Circle's first show of 2018, where the band debuted several tracks from Eat the Elephant and shook off the rust before the first of two Coachella performances. He explained the way he remotely collaborates with Keenan, his passions outside of music, and the destruction he witnessed as an equipment tech for Nine Inch Nails in the 90s.

AllMusic: When you and Maynard began working on this album in earnest, did you come together to discuss themes or anything like that?

Billy Howerdel: Sending files back and forth is the thing we’ve always done. I’ll have ideas for songs and send him a link, and he’ll download it and chew on it. The meat of the process of this record started in January or February of 2017, just throwing him blocks of songs at a time, two, three, four ideas, see where his head’s at, and I’d set up folders on a server and he’d put them in ‘yes,’ ‘no,’ ‘maybe.’ And from that I try to track where he’s at and what he might be inspired by vocally from there.

AllMusic: Was the bulk of the writing done around then?

Howerdel: There’s a lot of tracks that I wrote in 2014 that made the record, a good chunk of it, for whatever reason. I had a decent summer then, and that was around the time I decided to put the guitar down and move to keyboards, move to piano, as the initiation of writing. I’m not much of a keyboard player, so there was a lot of fumbling around and trying to find an accidental combination of notes, and a lot of that happened in 2014. There’s been a song or two that’s been around for a while, one in particular is old. I won’t say which one, I’ll let people hear it first.

AllMusic: The album opens with a piano, was that done intentionally to make the point that this wouldn't be as guitar-centric?

Howerdel: I had suggested making that the opening track, and Maynard seemed to be on the same page without me even saying it, so we both thought of that. I don’t really speak to lyrics, I don’t write them, but I think that lyrically, it’s the perfect kick-off song to the record.

AllMusic: With less reliance on guitar this time, it was probably fun to be more picky in choosing the points where you would add big guitar moments.

Howerdel: Yeah, I don’t know if I orchestrated or deliberately did it like that, but I was planning on putting guitar back in to replace a lot of the keys, and I did, to a certain extent, but I liked where things were going, Maynard seemed on board. I guess that’s the puzzle, is without thinking about it too much, how it can fit into the aesthetic of this band and still move forward? That was the needle we were threading, without even talking about it. Inevitably, it’s going to sound like us because it’s he and I collaborating together. Whatever instruments we pick up, that would probably translate.

The atmosphere stuff probably also comes a lot from me just doing my first film score for a little indie film that’s going around at film festivals now [d-love], and that informed me how to approach music much differently, how to approach collaboration differently. Coming from a writing standpoint in this band of working in isolation, working on a movie was a much more collaborative effort, and it made me think about this record much differently, and technically, in the textures and the atmospheres within a soundtrack, bringing that into this record.

AllMusic: The way you layered a strummed acoustic guitar alongside the electric on "Delicious" is something I can't recall you doing on the earlier records.

Howerdel: I kind of have. That’s something on the first record, like “Rose,” “Orestes,” “3 Libras,” I had that as a layering style on the first record, so it might be a bit of revisiting that mode. But the strumminess of “Delicious” is a bit more folk song than I’m used to. A lot of things can start there, can come from the Dylan place of songwriting of the melody and strumming simple chords with some kind of rhythm, but that one stuck around to the final song.

AllMusic: When Maynard sends back a track with vocals, do you have a routine for how you listen to those for the first time? Do you have any idea what they'll sound like beforehand?

Howerdel: It’s always a big question mark. I don’t have much of a ritual, I’m always excited to hear it, and a lot of times it’s when the song is pretty well realized, if not close to finished. He’s been hearing it in different forms, and on this record, even more so than on past ones, he’ll say, “What about this idea, can you try this?” Maynard, this time, wanted the songs to be a little closer to how they were going to be at the end before he tracked them, so his intricate vocal can weave within the music better, and stay there. There’s very few things that we changed a lot after his vocal got on there.

AllMusic: Right, if you'd changed the song significantly after he added his vocal, it might not fit anymore.

Howerdel: Yeah, on a song like “TalkTalk,” that was the case. That’s a song that I thought was one of the stronger demos that I had, and could have probably final tracked that song in the course of a weekend, the way it was. He liked it but wanted to hear it in a different time signature, the song was 4/4 and he wanted to hear it in 3/4, which is such a big difference, losing a beat and having to recreate a whole rhythm. So that song stayed in a weird state for a while, and he did track to it, and at the very end I went in and did a rehash, a re-approach, and I think it worked. But it was kind of a nerve-racking experience.

“Weak and Powerless” back on Thirteenth Step was a similar situation, everything was kind of done, the vocals were on, but I never thought the music was right, and the last week, right before we were going to mix, I completely redid that song and it worked. It doesn’t always work that way, but those are two examples where there was quite a substantial change at the last minute after the vocals were on.

AllMusic: The songs and the album itself skew a bit longer than the earlier records. Was that just because of the longer gap and you just had more material written?

Howerdel: That’s funny, I didn’t think of it that way. There’s a few in there that are longer, and the last track probably takes up a good amount of that time. It’s not truly by design, but certainly there was the idea of being OK with there being pauses. I think we both were on track with that kind of thing. “Disillusioned” in particular, he had liked where the demo was, and I was all for keeping it that way, which sometimes is a bit scary, going out and having that much. But the pauses between words, even when you’re speaking, I think sometimes you can concentrate more on the content when there’s a little bit more distance in between everything you’re trying to say, so hopefully it translates like that musically.

AllMusic: Maynard is pretty public about some of his non-musical hobbies, like jiu-jitsu and winemaking. How do you stay busy outside of music?

Howerdel: Cooking, I love cooking. I live to eat, and I like cooking for people. It’s the closest thing, if not the equivalent, to making a song that someone appreciates, if you can make a meal that someone appreciates and have them light up when they taste it or are done with it and just seeing good conversation around a dinner table, that's as fulfilling as writing a piece of music that people seem to find touches them in some way.

AllMusic: Is that a passion you've discovered recently?

Howerdel: I was a good cook my whole life, I grew up in an Italian family, being around grandma and mom and the aunts and uncles in the kitchen. I really got into it in the late 90s, and much more once I had kids, I was cooking for everybody. We have some food allergies in the house, so it made me a better cook. When you have limited ingredients, like in music, or if you have limited means or govern yourself by deadlines, I think it helps focus your craft. I feel pretty confident about my cooking.

AllMusic: You used to be a equipment tech for Nine Inch Nails back when the band was at its most aggressive. What was some of the worst gear destruction you encountered?

Howerdel: There were keyboards and guitars just splintered. That was more than being a tech, you were in a war, you were in this battle each night, but the battle was recreated in similar places, so we knew how to deal with it, it was almost like playing a video game with a certain scene where you know what you’re up against. There was a real chance of getting hurt on that stage, and that added to the excitement for sure. Especially the keyboards, they just exploded, these old Yamaha DX7s would get crushed, and the springs that were the tension on the keys would pop out, and those things were like shrapnel. There were several times when I’d find Trent on the floor bleeding because he had rolled onto some metal shards or something like that.

AllMusic: Were you ever allowed to say, "I don't think I can fix this"?

Howerdel: No, there was no “I can’t,” for sure. He had one of the first whammy pedals, and he’d just crush that thing. Even though he was trying to break it, it wasn’t OK for me to let it be broken, so I went to the manufacturer and got the first custom made remote unit, and had all these backups and a whole contingency plan for what would happen when he broke one, then two, then three. You just had to be resourceful, it was like when I hear people describe being in the Marines, you just adapt and overcome, whatever the situation is, there is no “can’t.”

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