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| 12 May 2018 | Reply

By Shane Pinnegar

Deep in the indie 90s, Billy Howerdel – then working as a guitar tech for Tool – played some of his esoteric demos for their frontman Maynard James Keenan. Howardel wanted to form a band with a female singer and delve into the indie hard rock underground in an epic and atmospheric way, but Keenan said, “I can hear myself singing these songs”. In 1999 the duo formed A Perfect Circle and now, after a 14 year break from recording, they return with Eat The Elephant, an astonishing collection that is startlingly modern whilst still sounding obviously A Perfect Circle, writes SHANE PINNEGAR.

Having been touring on and off since 2010, why was now the right time to release an album?

You know, logistically, it worked out. Maynard’s a very, very busy man – he’s got three bands and a family and a winery, and so trying to find a hole in his schedule is not the easiest thing – [it] has to be a big enough hole to do a whole album campaign. So for whatever reasons, the stars aligned and here we are.


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Shane: You must be doing a lot of interviews for this album. Does it get tedious?

Billy: Yeah, it does.

Shane: It must be a lot of the same questions – everyone wants to know the same thing, pretty much.

Billy: Well, sort of… there’s obviously a median range of questions, and then there’s some things on the outside and it’s nice to have a unique conversation with a human being. You never know where it’s gonna go. It only gets tedious when there’s lots stacked up – if it’s kinda spread out it’s not too bad.

Shane: I do feel that is a clear progression and an evolution in the sound. I was wondering – as you said, different influences come into your writing, and to Maynard’s writing – after 14 years, working together could have sounded completely different to what A Perfect Circle might have sounded like in the past.

Billy: Yeah, it’s true. You just never know. And it could have sounded different if we were recording it at 4PM instead of 8PM that day.

Shane: Fair enough.

Billy: A lot of these things are like a decision you make. You walk out of the house angry one day or you’re joyful one day and you have different results. It’s just the same with music. It’s this chaos that you don’t know where it’ll land. Look at it like a product you’re developing at a factory. It’s easy to recreate the product, but to find out the design of where it’s gonna be and how it’s gonna fit into your world, that’s the hard part, and it’s kind of impossible to reproduce, ‘cos you can’t go back in time and put yourself in that situation. So I think that’s always the hard part about making a record – you just don’t know what it’s going to sound like.

Shane: Can you explain a little about the song writing process? I read, you were explaining how you gave the title track demo to [producer] Dave Sardy, who took your vocal off, simplified it, I think was the word you used, and then Maynard changed that around a bit and wrote the lyrics. But that leads me to wonder – your original vocal on the demo, was that just a guide vocal for the melody, as opposed to lyrics?

Billy: I had a fair amount of lyrics written for that song – for the working title of that song. Some of it was just syllables, but a bunch of it was real words and real direction. But I don’t like giving Maynard lyrics, unless he wanted them. If he’s ever stuck I would say, ‘hey, I’ve got an idea for this if you ever want to hear it.’ Rarely does he, if ever. Judith is the only one that really came about in that way. So, yeah, he’s brilliant at cracking codes and figuring puzzles out musically. And those lyrics won’t go to waste – I’ve already inserted them into another song, which actually fits a little better. So it’s kind of a happy accident anyway.

A song like Contrarian… Contrarian was a very simple idea at first, I showed him it just as a piece of inspiration, not even particularly as a full song idea. He liked it and he said, ‘yeah, I’ll take a stab at probably singing on that,’ and so I just put another part to it, kinda put a song together, sent it to him, and he sent back that vocal. It was probably the first time I ever audibly said ‘wow’ out loud to a vocal I got back from him. It didn’t sound like all him in particular but it didn’t sound like now either. It just had this ‘60s girl band kind of vibe to it, to me, you know, but with his personality inserted. So that being said, it just seemed like he was covering so many bases like he just should keep going with it.

Shane: You did the soundtrack for the D-Love film recently. Is it a radically different approach to writing a movie score and a rock and roll record?

Billy: Yeah, it is. It’s really the first feature I’ve ever done, and I’ve got friends who are film composers. One in particular is Charlie Clouser. He was in Nine Inch Nails and now he does many motion pictures and TV, and he gave me a crash course some years ago, and it was really helpful, but I think the one thing that was the most scary to me is the temp music. Usually there’s temp music from the director showing you what it should be. This was a young director I worked with and a good friend of mine, so we spotted the film together. That was terrifying to me; to have a blank canvas and not have anything to go off of. We had to kind of discover it on our own.

And then tempo was so different – like, finding what the tempo of a scene is. It’s like being in a psycho-dynamic session with a psychologist, you’re on the couch and you’re diving into the director’s mind to see what makes these people tick emotionally. And I think that’s a really great exercise for any musician to experience. I’ve always, I think, been able to communicate emotion in music musically, but not verbally. You’re not talking about it, and talking about what is the arc of this character; where does it need to go – is this too much tension, is this enough levity. It was really dissecting music in a different way. But I think it helped me make this record much more. Speaking in orchestration and different colours but also working in service to something bigger.

Shane: I definitely feel that there’s a cinematic feel to a lot of the music on Eat The Elephant. I was wondering how related that was to doing that soundtrack.

Billy: Yeah, I think very much so.

Category: Interviews

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