While the world is eagerly waiting for another Tool album to emerge, Maynard James Keenan has a different kind of idea to keep himself busy. Along with A Perfect Circle founding member Billy Howerdel, he feeds us the long-awaited new album Eat the Elephant after 2004’s Emotive. Fourteen years later the compelling dynamic between the two musicians and friends has not lost a tiny bit of its energy. Eat the Elephant marks a strong return for the band that, even after such a long hiatus, still connects on a level of its own.
When meeting Billy Howerdel in a Berlin hotel shortly before the release of Eat the Elephant, he confirms the assumption straight away saying: ‘We’re at a point where we don’t explain a lot to each other. Even with things as big as the album title. I can relate to it. I get it.’ One bite at a time, A Perfect Circle slowly got back together to work together on song ideas after each of the band members had spent time with their own projects. A time that helped them to figure out what they wanted musically from each other: ‘Working on other projects was a desirable step. For me, it is my first love. From the first time I picked up a guitar to the first APC record and to release this is the unfiltered offering of what was inside my head. So to come back to it, it feels good. It feels like this open flowing creative process which is nice.’
The time factor can’t really be ignored when looking at all this time it took to make another album together, but Billy Howerdel isn’t too concerned with it and tries to focus on what is right in front of him. The making of Eat the Elephant was no exception: ‘You can look at it both ways – the days are longer than the years are short. That’s the way I look at it. The years are flying by, but I can get a lot done in a day. Aging has always played a role in my life. Even when I was younger. Hearing someone age-checking himself in a song. Thinking – do I have to be at that level when I’m 24? Or whatever age it is.’
‘We all have a limited amount of time. It’s a deadline. Without it, what would it be? It just puts an importance on things. Even when it comes to art. You can’t rush creativity, but you kind of can.’
One thing that got into the way of Howerdel’s creativity for a bit was, of course, politics. Living in the United States of America and not being affected by the many changes and deeply worrying events in the country would be a miracle. For Howerdel, it meant mentally getting away from everything as far as possible at one point: ‘A year ago I was really struggling with all the political nonsense that was going on. It was difficult wrapping my head around how is it that we are so incredibly divided as a country? To a point where I wasn’t really working, even though it was a time when we were talking about really getting this record off the ground. It should have been a time when I was most excited and put every distraction aside. I just had to shut it off for me because I wasn’t getting any movement.’
Fortunately, that changed soon afterwards. Making more and more progress with finishing Eat the Elephant, A Perfect Circle decided to go on tour and treat their fans to a few new songs each night. Howerdel remembers getting back onstage together well after the long break: ‘Playing all these shows last year, even before the record was done, was really about reconnecting with the fans, but also with us as a band. Remembering what we are doing and getting our energy back. Energy is very important because it’s easy to fall into state of low energy when you are just in the studio. There is not a lot of chaos floating around. It was nice to be out there and remember that. Seeing the audience responding so well and still being interested in what we have to say. It made us remember how can we evolve and grow this thing that is APC.’
With Emotive and Eat the Elephant being fourteen years apart, their fans, but also the band has been through quite a few changes. While the songs remain as powerful as ever and display a real joint effort in terms of the songwriting, there is one thing though that does feel different these days as Billy Howerdel admits: ‘The band dynamic has changed a bit over the years. I mean, Maynard has got a family, I have a family. On the first record, it was like – let’s have dinner, watch a movie and then go work on some songs. That doesn’t happen anymore. Once you get older, everybody is doing their thing and somehow it’s harder to come together. We have got to come up with a plan to go out and have fun.’
While making plans, A Perfect Circle decided to bring in producer Dave Sardy to guide them and made sure not to get lost in their own creative bubble which also included recording sessions at studio other than Howerdel’s home studio: ‘I like going into the studio even more so than back in 2000. For this record, we went into the studio more than back then. The idea was to just get into the room where a lot of great records were done and catch some of the magic. There is something different about being in a place where you don’t have to worry about the neighbours complaining or waking up your family. I had a home studio in Hollywood where we recorded Thirteenth Step and Emotive. It was a proper studio in the basement of my house, but there’s still something different about leaving the house and going somewhere else to work. I had to be a little bit more pushed into it this time.’
‘I do have a comfort zone because I can do everything at home. It did have a benefit though and I consider going to a studio to be a luxury not everybody has.’
Speaking of comfort, Howerdel’s comfort zone is also shaped by his most favourite guitar, a Les Paul as he reveals: ‘I get nervous thinking about it because it would be hard to replace it. It’s the only guitar I pick up when I really know I want to record something. I mean on this record, I did use other instruments to give the songs more colours, but for the most part it’s my Les Paul.’
His love for this particular guitar doesn’t mean that, every once in a while, he feels like there is another instrument that can he can coax sounds out of though: ‘I would love to be a better guitar player. Even more so a better piano player. I just bought my first real acoustic piano this year. It’s a 1909 Steinway upright. It’s just gorgeous. I’ve had a spot in my house ready for it and I’ve been looking for one for a while. I was very picky about what I wanted. I didn’t want just an old piano. My house is older and it needed to fit. So I found the classic one. Paz (Lechantin), our first bass player, her dad is a piano broker so he sold it to me.’
Always striving to expand his musical knowledge, Howerdel remembers his first piano lesson a while back: ‘Funnily enough, I took some lessons from Paz’s mom a few years ago. Like six lessons. It was the first time I ever took lessons. She wanted to start teaching me how to read music, but I told her I don’t want to know how to do that. I’m a bit scared and superstitious of it. Losing a certain sense of creativity. When I write, I don’t know which key the song is in. Someone can tell me later, but I don’t want to know while I’m doing it.’
Eat the Elephant, however, does well without the music theory bits intervening.