July 23, 2011
By Laura Hill
A Perfect Circle
Guitarist Finds Right 'TOOL' to Complete Musical Circle
JAM Magazine Gets In-depth with Guitarist Billy Howerdel
Photos Provided by Bill Howerdel's website, Katherine Gaines, Nancy King
Over the years, nothing has matched the intensity of A Perfect Circle like the group's powerhouse rock and roll introduction, Mer de Noms. Released on May 23, 2000, the record sold nearly 200,000 copies by the end of the month, to debut at No. 4 on the Billboard album charts. Tours opening for Nine Inch Nails, followed by their own solo endeavors, saw APC ride the singles "Judith", "The Hollow" and "Three Libras" to worldwide acclaim. Not bad for a band that almost never happened.
Timing, as they say, is everything. Billy Howerdel, the mastermind behind the group, can certainly attest to that well-worn adage. For years, he toiled in silence, writing music on his trusty portable studio, touring the world as a guitar tech for bands like Faith No More, David Bowie, Fishbone and the Smashing Pumpkins. Tired of the road, and studio work, the guitarist said goodbye to his past so he could fully concentrate on his oft-delayed project.
No sooner had Howerdel started some serious work on his compositions, an unexpected phone call, from a most curious source, delayed his recording plans once again. Axl Rose wanted to know if he would be interested in programming guitar sounds on the new Guns N'Roses album. Intrigued by the thought of working on the infamous recording, now going on its tenth year of production work, he accepted. His responsibilities would eventually transition over to a sort of ‘Pro Tools guy position', where he would remain for two-and-a-half years. Finally, even the West Milford, New Jersey native realized he had to move on, and gracefully bowed out. In his mind, it was now or never to complete his own decade-long endeavor.
"From what I recall," said Howerdel of APC's beginning, "we started getting serious with the band in August 1999. We had been getting together to practice about one time a month for over a half a year. I finally told everyone that's it, let's just book a show, even if we aren't ready, let's go ahead and do something. At the time, Keith Morris from The Circle Jerks, was sick with diabetes. There was a benefit concert going on to help him with these huge medical bills he was facing. There was a spot open on the show. Maynard heard about it and got us on. That was it; we were going to perform live. I had to come up with a name for the band; I had to get as many things solidified as possible to move forward. So it was a good kick in the ass. We could have gone on forever talking and not finish anything."
Howerdel's labor of love had gained some unexpected traction three years earlier during Tool's recording of its groundbreaking album, Aenima. The musician had been hired by band guitarist Adam Jones to be his tech. During down time in the studio, he would work on his own music. One day, Tool's mercurial lead singer, Maynard James Keenan, overheard some of the music. Intrigued, he expressed an interest in contributing vocals to it. The unexpected offer took the hired hand completely by surprise.
"I had been working on these songs," reflected Howerdel, "going back to high school. The first song you hear on the album, "The Hollow," was written when I was 17, 18 years old. Over the years, I kept writing music while on the road working for other bands. I'd bring a little portable studio with me and literally wrote songs all over the world. When Tool recorded Aenima, I brought my portable to their real studio. Maynard heard what I was working on and put this notion in my head he wanted to do something with the music. Up until that point, I was thinking of a female singer.
"When Maynard expressed interest, it was the first time I had ever thought of a male in the vocalist role. That's where it started. I'm friends with everyone in Tool. Their guitarist, Adam Jones, who I was working for, suggested a friend of his, Paz Lenchantin, might be a good fit for what I was doing. He told me how talented she was on the bass and violin. I went and saw her perform, from the crowd, to get a perspective of her abilities. Adam was right. I introduced myself and we ended up becoming really good friends."
Howerdel and Keenan first met on tour in 1993. Tool had just released their debut album, Undertow, and landed a spot opening for Fishbone. Billy had been hired to handle the guitars for the fun-loving, oddball group. As the bands toured the country, the two became fast friends. At one point, when Howerdel was looking for a place to live in-between tours. Keenan offered him a place in a house he was sharing with another guy. The arrangement worked out perfect. Interestingly enough, with both parties constantly on the road, their paths rarely crossed at home. The singer never had a chance to hear what his housemate was working on.
"When Adam hired me for the Aenima sessions," added the tech, "it was with the understanding I could bring my portable studio to their rehearsals. After my work was complete, and they were meticulously mixing the songs, I'd start work on my own music. It was on one of these downtimes that Maynard actually heard the compositions I was working on. I thought it was great when he indicated his willingness to write lyrics to my music. However, I also had to be realistic about the chances it would never happen. He was in Tool and the band had a very active schedule. Though they took a lot of time between records, when they start rolling, they are extremely busy. So, yes I thought there was a strong possibility Maynard working with me wasn't going to happen.
"Our initial work started off slow because I was involved with the Axl thing. I was so wrapped up with the Guns N'Roses, I told Maynard we could work on the songwriting when we both had time. The thing with G-N-R went on longer than I ever wanted it to. I finally had to make a decision after the second year. Either I was going to pursue my deal, or continue work on Chinese Democracy. I had to go. Tool was going through some transitions at the time with their record label. This freed Maynard up to start working full time on some scratch vocals for tracks I had already composed. This happened toward the end of the summer in 1998."
Tool's second album, Aenima, was released the first week of October, 1996 to universal acclaim. The record went triple-platinum, garnered three Grammy nominations, and spearheaded a progressive metal explosion in this country. The band's record setting success was also tempered by some unexpected pitfalls. While they were on tour supporting the album, their record company, Zoo Entertainment, closed its doors. Volcano Records purchased the pieces of the label it wanted, in particular Tool. Soon afterwards, a legal battle ensued between the two entities over alleged contract violations. While lawyers sorted through the issues, Keenan settled in to write lyrics for Howerdel's music. What had begun as a very uncertain maybe at one point had now grown into a full-blown partnership.
"I'll be honest with you," said the musician bluntly. "A Perfect Circle might never have happened had Tool decided to go into the studio, in 1999, to begin work on the follow-up to Aenima. Fortunately, the band was distracted because of label issues and Adam started working on a side project. Also, with the way these guys work, and the complex nature of what they do, they take a great deal of time to work out the intricate details of their music. That also bought time for Maynard up to work with me."
Fortunate incident or not, the two musicians began work in earnest. Howerdel started to re-track all the guitar parts he had composed in the ‘90s. Paz Lenchantin worked on string arrangements as well as the bass parts. Troy Van Leeuwen was brought in as a second guitarist. Former Primus drummer, Tim Alexander, worked with the group for several months before a prior commitment forced his exit. Josh Freese stepped in to replace him.
"I am always under the impression," offered Howerdel, "that if all possible, you should be the weakest link in the band. As a guitarist, you can always push yourself to improve. It's hard to make somebody else, convince somebody else, they can be better at their craft. Everyone who contributed on the first album was fantastic. Josh Freese is a monster drummer. He's dead on accurate and is one of my best friends. In fact, I consider everyone in APC good friends. I would hang out with them regardless of there status in the band.
"With the group I assembled, it's another reason I felt so blessed about the first album. Seriously, it was hard for everyone involved to believe we got as far as we did. We had all been in this business for a long time, and seen some hard roads traveled. It's kind of why I got into the business the way I did, through tech work, to learn the ropes. I didn't want to be some clumsy fool when it came time to recruit a band. I may have worked for other groups longer than I intended to over the years, but I learned a lot of valuable stuff along the way."
Another pleasant surprise awaiting Howerdel was the beautiful prose Keenan constructed for the songs his friend had written over the years. At times, after the guitarist read the lyrical passages, it would often leave him speechless.
"Although the music was very personal to me" conceded Howerdel, "it was a marvel to watch Maynard work. He would get deeply personal with the lyrics he wrote. There was no way I could identify with the places, in his mind, that created these wonderful word structures and melodies. Compared to what I was hearing on the radio at the time, his lyrics for my music were awesome. Seriously, that's all I can say. The compositions I had created in my head were already in place. To watch them come alive with his words was truly incredible."
For lack of a better term, the guitarist actually created ‘a perfect circle' around him. It was even more evident when it was time to get down to the business of selecting the right home for the band's music. Every major label in Los Angeles had expressed interest in signing the group. The only question to answer was who would be the right fit. It came in the form of the audacious, super sexy vice chairman of Virgin Records, Nancy Berry.
"Alan Moulder and I," recollected Howerdel, "were mixing like the eighth song on the album when Nancy Berry walked into the studio. She made a pitch that pretty much killed all the other offers on the table, and all those deals were fantastic. Before she arrived on the scene, we were about to give our decision between two of the labels we were really excited about. Nancy squashed those agreements in one meeting."
The controversial Virgin Records executive laid out a worldwide marketing plan for A Perfect Circle. She promised to use her ties in the music business, combined with Virgin's global clout, to create memorable campaigns for the band. Howerdel was sold.
"Adam's wife is Toni Halliday from the band Curve," relayed the artist. "She was friends with Nancy and said a lot of nice things. I had heard about her work ethic, and when she believes in a project, she really means it. We went on faith she was going to make A Perfect Circle a priority for Virgin. She delivered. You don't usually hear bands praise their record label, but I have no problem doing it here.
"The biggest thing for us at the time was worldwide focus on the band, not just North America. We wanted a good royalty rate and got it. We wanted certain things on the back end, and Nancy agreed. Again, one very important item many bands forget about when they sign their deal is this. How will their music be distributed to the rest of the world? All they think about is the front end money, which is a no interest loan you can be extremely foolish with and spend. That wasn't going to happen here. A lot of the labels had strong pros and cons when it came to their presence in Europe and Asia. Virgin had the total package. I totally believed Nancy, when she promised all of the company's worldwide resources, would be focused squarely on our band."
A Perfect Circle delivered an album Berry could skillfully market the world over. With the buzz going around about Maynard James Keenan's new band, interest in the group picked up immediately. The group even booked the opening slot for an upcoming Nine Inch Nails tour before their album was even released. It was a bold move that paid off.
"It's funny now," responded Howerdel, "but the one concern we had, well, I had actually, was this. I was nervous people were going to shout out Tool songs, you know titles, during our show. Thankfully it didn't happen. We knew there was no way we could separate Maynard from his past. There was also no way we would ever do a Tool song in concert. That would never, ever happen."
Keenan warned his band mates, especially Howerdel, that the media, and fans alike, would look at A Perfect Circle as the singer's side project. Since his name was the only known quantity attached to the band, the guitarist needed to prepare himself for the inevitable.
"Maynard told me from the start," said Howerdel of those heady days, "I'd probably be overshadowed. Truthfully, I fully expected people to think this actually was his side project. Seriously, I would have thought the same thing. In this business, it's hard enough to make music you are proud of. It's an even tougher proposition to get noticed for it. Maynard's name recognition guaranteed the public would give our music a fair chance. And for that, I was very grateful.
"To his credit, he did everything in his power to correct the misconception. Since I knew it was coming, it didn't bother me. On a personal note, with all the hard work Maynard did on this project, he deserved every accolade that came his way. Truth be told of those days, I actually felt like the luckiest lottery winner in the world. I still do."