As they release Eat The Elephant, their first new album in 14 years, we chat to A Perfect Circle...
Maynard James Keenan doesn’t do anything quickly.
In his career with Tool, a band he formed in 1990, the group have put out only four studio albums, their last one more than 12 years ago. The same goes for his other projects, Puscifer have been a little more prolific, with three LPs in eight years, but A Perfect Circle are in the same boat as Tool, with no new album on shelves since 2004’s eMOTIVe.
Formed in 1999 by Keenan and former Nine Inch Nails guitar tech Billy Howerdel, the group have had supergroup billing since their formation, with the likes of Queens Of The Stone guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen, current Pixies bassist Paz Lenchantin, Nine Inch Nails man Danny Lohner and former Marilyn Manson mainman Jeordie White all part of the line-up at some point, helping Keenan and Howerdel to shape their ambitious, dark rock songs.
Since their last LP, there have been a few tours, quite a few line-up changes, but no music. That all changes today with the release of Eat The Elephant, the band’s first new album in 14 years.
Recorded with Oasis/Manic Street Preachers producer Dave Sardy and with a line-up that now includes Smashing Pumpkins axeman James Iha, Puscifer bassist Matt McJunkins and Devo sticksman Jeff Friedl, the album is another deep dive in Keenan’s abstract take on the world, all set to thundering guitars and powerhouse production.
With the new album now on shelves, we spoke to Keenan and Howerdel about the making of this long-awaited new LP...
It’s been a long time since your last record, have ideas been bubbling away for the band this whole time?
Maynard: “It’s always been in my mind, but I’ve been focused on other projects, mostly Puscifer and my vineyard. But I saw a window and I jumped through it.”
Billy: “I’m always writing, but this happened to be the songs we’ve coalesced around. I have to dispel the rumour that we’ve been carefully working on songs, but it’s been taking a long time. These are the songs that I presented to Maynard that he liked. I’d say we had about 16 songs that we’ve worked down to 12.”
“Back in 2012, I gave Maynard three or four songs, one of which was ‘By and Down By The River’. We worked from there, it’s much easier to make a record when you have somewhere to go.”
Maynard: “Not all of the songs he gave me resonated, a lot of it was better suited to Ashes Divide, his other project. But I jumped on the stuff that did.”
Have you both been in touch with song ideas throughout the time you’ve been apart?
Maynard: “Occasionally. I went silent for a long time, I didn’t want to get Billy’s hopes up if I wasn’t ready. The timing brought me back, a lot of little pieces came together, the politics of the day and when we spoke I could tell he was chomping at the bit to do something. It’s worked out pretty well.”
Billy: “We speak occasionally. He’s out in Arizona, we both have families and other things going on. Like all my friends, the older we get, the less we keep in touch. My relationship with Maynard has moved from being friends every day, going for dinner, writing when we feel like it, to more like a brother. We’re very close when we’re together, but it’s not that often.”
Has that changed the way you write songs?
Maynard: “This time we had to split off, it just worked out that way. I worked with Matt Mitchell, who's my guy from Puscifer, and Billy got the tracks down. We weren’t in the same room most of the time, we worked digitally, you finish something, you send it over, you get a lot done that way, it’s kind of inspiring.”
Billy: "We had a lot less time together this time. We did in the beginning, but once we started rolling we barely saw each other. We worked remotely. Matt would record him and Dave Sardy would record me and we brought it together digitally.”
How did you find working digitally?
Billy: “It is harder. I don’t know if we’ve ever written a record in a room together, we might one day. Maynard actually brought it up, the idea of renting a cabin somewhere, recording for a week, sitting on it for a month, then doing it again. It didn’t work out this time, but I’d love to do that one day.”
This is your first time working with an outside producer in Dave Sardy, what did he bring to the process?
Maynard: “Clarity. Billy has a tendency to add things, and add things, and add things when I’m not around, so Dave was able to come and mute a few things. That was very helpful.”
Billy: “At the start we had Danny Lohner helping with us additional production, but I’ve always been in charge of the files. This time I didn’t do that, I couldn’t tinker or hear rough mixes. It was more pouring ingredients into a bucket and then pouring it out and picking through. Dave had me working hard, we did a lot of tracking and then it all came together.”
Can you talk us through the other guys on the record?
Billy: “Matt McJunkins played on a couple of tracks and then we’ve had a few drummers. Jeff Friedl, Matt Chamberlain, Isaac Carpenter, they’ve all played on the record. I filled in the rest of the gaps.”
What kind of album is this lyrically? Is there a theme to it?
Maynard: “Each song is its own island, but I think they all resonate with the times we’re living in, that’s how I’ve always written. It’s always very cathartic, I used writing as a therapy to work out the kinks in things.”
When did you settle on the album title?
Maynard: “I had it a while ago, but I didn’t write it down until we had a few songs down. I always work with a couple of titles in mind, but you can’t decide until you’ve got it finished. Then I knew it worked.”
Billy: “That came together in November. It was Maynard’s idea and he had the record concept in mind. It encapsulates the record really well.”
How’s your live set coming together?
Maynard: “Translating the albums live is always the biggest challenge. You can try to recreate it, but it needs to have an energy and sometimes that means reworking them a little.”
Billy: “Well, we’ve just lost James Iha to the Smashing Pumpkins, I’m currently teaching Greg (Edwards, touring guitarist) all the songs. Then when we’re completely comfortable we’re going to learn everything and go from there. I’ve been so excited to play these new songs.”