Tool of the Trade
Look at the latest industry sales meters -- Billboard, SoundScan -- and at the top you'll see the usual suspects: Britney, Eminem, matchbox 20. But among those familiar names you'll also find a relatively unknown commodity, a new aggro-metal band called A Perfect Circle. While the music-biz hype machine usually works toward eliciting the shrieks of young girls, the sounds that have accompanied APC's debut are far different, though no less dramatic. Little more than a year after forming, the group has already been the subject of a record company bidding war, landed an opening slot on a major arena tour and seen its album sell nearly a quarter-million copies in the first week alone, good enough to land it in the Top 5. Not bad for the proverbial baby band, but most struggling young acts don't have APC's biggest public asset, lead singer Maynard James Keenan, the enigmatic front man for alternative metal stars Tool.
Admittedly, Keenan, a sometime Arizona resident, is the very public face of the band. But what makes APC more than a vanity project for the singer is the group's hidden element, guitarist/composer Billy Howerdel. Howerdel, you see, has been around the rock 'n' roll world long enough to know how things are done. He knows the game and its players. As a guitar tech for Nine Inch Nails and Tool, and a computer programmer for Guns N' Roses (remember them?), Howerdel has seen the mistakes so many musicians make. So he's not about to blow his big break chasing after the sex and drugs of rock's holy trinity. He's also made important friends while working behind the scenes for Trent Reznor's traveling war zone -- and that, not Keenan's star power, is the reason that Reznor called on APC to open NIN's current Fragility v 2.0 tour.
"That's why I got into [guitar teching] in the first place, and it's really served its purpose," Howerdel says a few days before leaving for the NIN jaunt. "I got to see a lot of things that I hated and a lot of mistakes, a lot of whining, and bad judgment. I've been a voyeur amongst many bands, even if I didn't work with them, and I've seen some bad choices and I've tried to learn from them. Seeing firsthand, especially in dealing with record companies and management, it was helpful in choosing things, in making business decisions."
Despite his detailed knowledge and the clinical precision with which he can talk about the record industry (yawn), Howerdel's passion is his music. Originally, the tunes that make up A Perfect Circle's Virgin Records debut, Mer de Noms, were nearly 20-minute-long opuses, written with a female vocalist in mind. And Howerdel wasn't in any real hurry to put his music out into the world.
"It was just me sitting in the bedroom showing my girlfriend and a couple of friends my songs. You don't know until you've really tried, until you've gone out and seen how it's received," explains Howerdel about his home recordings.
Enter Keenan. Longtime friends with Howerdel, the pair were also roommates for a time, so when the guitarist was writing and recording at home, Keenan, duly impressed with what he heard, offered to lend his vocals to the record. Though he's appeared on other non-Tool-related projects before -- a Green Jelly record, the new Rage Against the Machine album, the upcoming Deftones long player -- this is the first time he's jumped into a side venture (shaven) head first.
"The music to me is just attractive. I couldn't put my finger on what it is that I respond to. I just respond to certain things, especially if it's just instrumental music. I can hear the missing pieces," Keenan says. "I'm really good at spatial arrangements in a three-dimensional sound space, at putting things in their place. I have a sense for Feng Shui and flow. With this it's the same thing: If it's instrumental, I hear where the vocal ought to go."
Howerdel, with his matching clean pate and quiet speaking voice, seems an unlikely candidate for road dog or band leader. But he has a group of heavy hitters backing him, including drummer Josh Freese (Vandals, Guns N' Roses), guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen (Failure), and Paz Lenchantin on bass and violin. And while Mer de Noms was recorded in Howerdel's garage, it certainly doesn't sound like garage rock. Rather, the songs are paranoid soundscapes filled with multiple shades of dark, aggressive guitars that drive a thick amalgamation of prog, alt. rock and metal. The occasional touches of Lenchantin's bowed strings serve to sweeten the mix only slightly. Though far less rage-fueled than Tool, APC's material shares some characteristics with Keenan's other band -- quick time-signature changes, sudden punches of shiny guitars through the murk, and dark, nebulous lyrics. And like Tool, the songs have their heavy moments and a palpable air of sonic pretension. Ultimately, it's less aggressive than anything in the Tool canon, in part because Keenan has chosen to layer his vocal tracks and refrain from using his familiar scream.
In contrast to the increasingly longer breaks that mark the time between Tool albums, the progression from Howerdel's home taping to worldwide release happened at light-speed. The catalyst, according to Keenan, was simple: "The music. When we were actually hearing the music being made, we were inspired to let other people hear it. I think it just kind of escalated from there."
"At first it really wasn't a serious or time-consuming thing," adds Howerdel. "It was, "Oh, let's play together next month or something.' It was really sporadic. I was still writing music the whole time, but as far as playing together, it only got pretty focused about a year ago and it got very focused in August; we just decided, "Let's just go for it and get it rolling.' The band's gone through different stages of evolution very quickly. Everything has been nonstop since then."
This regular activity included a tour last fall with a slightly different lineup, and, with or without Keenan, the band is set to become an ongoing affair. "At the end of the year, I would think, [Keenan] will be busy with Tool and I will get on to writing the next Perfect Circle record," Howerdel says. "We'll both be busy. It's kind of good that we work the way we do, with me writing the music first."
And while Howerdel bears the bulk of the creative burden, it's clear that most of the high-profile media and radio attention is a result of Keenan's association with the band. With few having been exposed to the just-released record, it's clear that the singer's presence is still overshadowing the music. For his part, Keenan appears to be trying to obscure his participation -- wearing a long wig in press shots and completely hiding his face in the band's "Judith" video, directed by David Fincher (Fight Club, Seven).
"The front person is the person people notice first. I know it's coming, I've always known that," says Howerdel calmly. "I'm proud of what I've done. I'm not going to worry about it."
Keenan, looking like he could pass for Howerdel's older brother, agrees. "People are going to compare it to Tool -- whatever, it's their thing. We're happy with it. I like what we did. I'm inspired by it. We're trying to make it so that people really understand that Billy is the main songwriter in this band. He writes all the music, he did all the producing, all the engineering -- it's his band. So as time goes on, I'll be involved and I'll be there, but it will become very obvious that this is his thing and I'm just the singer."
Regardless of whose "thing" it is, Mer de Noms remains a pretty stunning record. And Howerdel has seen enough to know that not only does he have something good on his hands, but to be grateful for the chance to bring his work to the masses. "Working in the business the whole time [has helped]. If I'd had a waiter job and had been doing this in my bedroom and then this happened, I'd probably be so awe-struck, star-struck -- I'd probably be freaked out," he says, laughing. "I don't mean to downplay it, but it's another business dealing. I'm kind of realistic that anything can happen at any time. I really feel blessed as to how this has gone about so far. But I'm trying to be realistic about it. It's just another band and we're trying to do what every other band does, which is to try and get your music heard by as many people as you can. It's the same industry; it's just a different job."
A Perfect Circle is scheduled to open for Nine Inch Nails on Sunday, June 4, at America West Arena. Showtime is 8 p.m.
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