A Perfect Circle are a band of rare standard. Driven by perfectionist vocalist Maynard James Keenan, most famous as the leader of Tool, they’re a band who would rather release nothing than something mediocre. The fact that today’s release, Eat The Elephant, is their first album in 14 years – it follows Mer De Noms (2000), Thirteenth Step (2003) and Emotive (2004) – is indicative of the way they need to carve out dedicated blocks of time, away from their other projects, to ensure their best is achieved.
What Eat The Elephant reaches in terms of orchestration – Billy Maynard has written a film score since the last APC album – and lyricism is phenomenal: this new album is easily up there with greatest rock albums of this century with an immersive, dynamic compelling tapestry of sound. And the guitars have never sounded so good.
Top line writer Keenan’s tight, poetic turns of phrase, delivered with conviction and sincerity, conjure a thousand pictures with every line. Songs are rich in ancient metaphor – many of which will take time to unpick, and expose more depth to the album over time. The songs reflect what’s relevant and concerning right now: nuclear armageddon, ecocide, and the passing of our rock ‘n’ roll and cult movie stars, to name but a few topics.
Keenan’s someone acutely aware and analytical of how we are being moulded and impacted by fear in the media, too. This is a songwriter able to reflect on what we’ve lost in ourselves due to political and technological change; we couldn’t ask for a better singer to help us try and better understand our world.
Gigiwise meets Keenan and Howerdel in a London hotel. Keenan has come from Jerome, Arizona, and Howerdel from his home in Los Angeles to be here. The frontman is a vineyard owner as well as a recording and touring artist, and the swell of London noise is far flung from the peace of the arid desertscape of Jerome – a town, we're told, whose population sank to 30 before been reinhabited by hippies, draft dogers, bikers and mine workers.
It’s somewhere that seems to be a deep source of inspiration for the singer, and perhaps it rubs off on his personality. Keenan’s focused, thoughtful, and deeply knowledgeable in conversation, he conveys an air of self-sufficiency out there. But he’s not out in the sticks full-time: trips to Los Angeles were made for this album, helping the sonics of the LP translate in barren, jaw-dropping vistas, as well as chaotic urban surrounds. Howerdel, meanwhile, though born and raised in New Jersey, is Los Angeles through and through. He tells me he's buoyed by the city’s restless, ambitious drive. London, though, is as fitting a place as any to discuss the alarming state of the world, corrupt politicians, and making an album - in a very modern way - that will stand the test of time.
Read the full interview below:
Gigwise: You seem preoccupied with the growing warlike vibe in the country. Fair?
Maynard Keenan: What’s happening in the US is polarization. You have to choose a side, and then you can’t sway from your side, which is ridiculous. The world is a grey area. There’s nuances to everything. I can call bullshit – I’m the jester, I’m the guy in the middle, pointing out how nobody’s wearing clothes. That’s been the artist’s job for a while.
G: The narratives manage to address power politics, without sounding preachy.
MK: Preachy is one-dimensional, and tends to suggest a side and a position that’s not compassionate. Again, there are nuances to everything. Wars occur when the foot soldiers have been persuaded that they’re in the right. We’re right, they’re wrong. Both sides. No one’s going to go, ‘we know we’re wrong, we’re going to go and fight anyway.’ If you can get your head around that, suddenly you’re not being preachy anymore.
G: Do you think living in Jerome, Arizona, and being connected to the land has helped you clarify these thoughts in your writing?
MK: People respond to different stimuli. Somebody like Andy Warhol could cut through all the bullshit, all this chaos and noise and posturing and culture of fake and otherwise. He’d thrive. I need a little more distance and perspective, to really hone in on subjects. Space is important.
G: Even though the population in Jerome has declined massively, it still seems like there’s a good community out there. You have a co-op, for one thing.
MK: It started around the late 60s, early 70s. You had a bunch of mining communities, WWII, depression. They left a tiny town, and even though it was 20,000 people it kinda went down to 30 people, just to maintain it, keep the roads open. Hippies discovered it. Draft dodgers discovered it. Bikers discovered it. Trust fund babies discovered it. They all moved into this little artist community. People that want to get along, but don’t necessarily get along. You go to turn the tap and the water doesn’t come out. They had to rebuild, work with the mining company – but of course they’re hippies, they hate the mining company. But now you’re part of the mining company; the girl you’re dating is the daughter of the mining executive. You start to erase political, social, economic, religious lines. People say, 'don’t talk about religion or politics.' Fuck that! Talk about it! Then you start to understand what you want.
G: When you were writing Eat The Elephant, was it a process of coming up with ideas that were a continuum, or did you have lots of turns of phrase from throughout your career that you always wanted to use?
MK: Some. There’s probably some lingering pieces from the past. But generally speaking, to be accurate in the moment and relevant – which is always the hard part – you have to stay in the moment and be connected to where you are, and see what your perspective is from here.
G: The line “mushroom cloud confetti” on 'So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish' is about nuclear bombs, and to me you made it look like a picture while you sung it… There are a few golden moments like that and I was thinking this is not the work of someone who has spent 18 months or so sketching. It seems maybe you’ve been joining dots, collecting phrases in your notebook over a lifetime.
MK: Metaphorically speaking, I have notebooks. I don’t literally keep notebooks. But I am visual. I have a lot of friends who give me books and I’m not much of a reader but I watch films all the time. Independent films, old vintage films, new films, old films, awful current TV shows because I’m very visual and I pick up on the nuance of the stores in all these things and I log them away. When I read I get similar things out of books, but I have a lot more luck with film.
G: Was it your intention to give an abstract name for the title track because this particular track was finished after the death of a close friend Billy's? Perhaps you were giving him the space to express his mourning instrumentally in not being so overt?
MK: Yeah, possibly.
G: Journalists are forever going to ask you about the meaning of Eat The Elephant.
MK: In general, over the years just working with Billy, he is definitely that person that needs to be shoved out of the closet. Because he’ll take what he’s doing and marinade in it and never really bring it out into the light. So just one of a million interpretations of the title is that process of going, ‘ok we’re doing this and the only way we’re going to get that done is by doing it. Not stopping.’
G: I read that Billy tends to hold onto stuff a lot and his solo output was a lot slower to come because he would scrutinise himself so much.
MK: I’m the drill sergeant. I’m the one that kicks the garbage can over and says, ‘get the fuck out of bed! We’re going, it’s time to hike.’
G: Did he come to Jerome at all?
MK: Because of the tight nature of the timing, he worked with Dave Sardy in LA and I would either work in LA with Mat Mitchell from [supergroup] Puscifer or have Mat come to Arizona. We had two studios at once, sharing the files back and forth to figure out where we’re going to go. In the digital age that’s actually pretty convenient. Rather than being the guitar player waiting for the bass player and the drummer to finish their shit, we’re actually working on guitars over here and drums are over there. It’s nice to be able to do that.
G: So you were working at an incredibly fast rate with two studios going at the same time. Is that something you enjoyed, Billy?
Billy Howerdel: No. It was OK, but I’d much rather be together in the room doing it. Although when you’re all in the room there’s maybe even less experimentation. There’s more opinions and more collaboration but sometimes you need to sit with a bad idea to get a brilliant idea out of it. And sometimes a brilliant idea never comes.
G: When you play live there are layers and orchestration. It’s not plug and play. Were any of those punkish ethics applied in the recording process? Was anything done on a first take?
BH: There were very few first takes. And there was a 20th take.
G: You talked about having the idea of wanting to move to Jerome in a dream. Did any of this album come through dreams?
MK: Most of that stuff found its way into Puscifer tracks. I think for this one we’re talking about the social climate, the political climate. It’s been a very tense time. Like I say, polarized.
G: I’m interested in your opinion on Armageddon. Do you think it’s almost become a political football?
MK: Fear is a motivator. I mean that’s been true for a long time, and it’s a common thread through this album. If a Democrat, or Republican, gets in office there’s always a spike in some specific trade, because one group is afraid of the other one taking it away. But they’re all the same party. I don’t know why anybody is dumb enough to believe that governments have your best interest in mind. That’s never been the case.
G: That’s one of the limitations with the Corbyn campaign. When old school socialists end up getting swept into the idea that change is going to come from within a government, they lose sight of their more radical ideology.
MK: Yeah, we all go through that as artists, and as parents. There’s enough noise and confusion and fear inserted into the airwaves. You lose sight of where you’re going. You as a parent, or a teacher, can help the younger generation understand the broken pieces a little bit. But that’s the problem with things like Facebook. Arguing on Facebook fixes nothing. You’re not going to change anybody’s mind. Figure out a way to live by example.
G: So we can teach the next generation, but we’re so distracted right now there’s a danger that all this negativity will perpetuate. Is that the message?
MK: Yeah, absolutely. One of the best things that could happen to us is a solar flare that acts as a global EMP that just shuts all the electronics down, even for short periods of time. Everything goes to shit for like a month. Everyone having to scramble and talk to each other and figure it out. How much of an education would that be?
G: What are some of the dangers and disadvantages of being caught up in these technological disconnects?
MK: You can’t eat this thing [points at his phone].
G: It feels like the arrival of Trump in a way - all these years and years of progress and then, boof!
MK: Yeah, it’s pretty devastating. But we’ve seen it before and recovered from it before, metaphorically and literally. World leaders that have gone sideways with those things. Eventually somebody spanks them pretty hard, and spanks the supporters pretty hard too.
G: Tim Commerford from Rage Against The Machine told me in the lead up to Trump’s election that if he does get in power, which he has, that on the bright side, at least Germany is now a far better place.
MK: (laughs) Right. Yeah, look at that country. Look at those people. Fucking amazing people. They were always amazing people. There was just this fear that infected everybody and it whipped their brains into shape where everybody is falling in line because of the extreme fear of being killed if you don’t fall in line. It’s like a fucking blizzard. It’s like dominoes, then when it all pulls away you’re still left with a bunch of good hearted people who were fucking terrified for their lives. They were all there, they never weren’t there.
G: One of the images on the album is of a bloated corpse on the river. You were honing in on memories outside of western culture…
MK: There’s a lot. We’re drawing on some ancient metaphors. Lots of Eastern culture.
G: One of the things I was thinking is Varanasi in India, where corpses are ceremonially floated down the Ganges.
MK: It had more to do with the bodies of your enemies. The metaphor of, just don’t worry about people who are going down a negative path – they will find their own way. Eventually their bodies will be floating down the river while you’re having lunch. That negative shit always sorts itself out. Be patient.
G: What’s ‘So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish’ about? There’s a line in there about a crescendo.
MK: It’s such a poppy song, I felt the sarcastic thing to do would be to turn it into a positive negative. It’s a crescendo of watching the entire globe go up in a nuclear explosion.
G: I was thinking of the horizon you may see from Arizona, and the parallel between how that makes you feel and how listening to your music makes me feel….
MK: Yeah. It helps to have multiple horizons to look at to see if it translates. Different songs are going to translate in different settings. If you’re going to drive through the desert you couldn’t get a better album than [Purcifer's] Money Shot or Conditions Of My Parole because it was all written there and you could see the horizons and the rocks and the rising and falling roads. But something like Eat The Elephant, I think it also works in big city settings.
G: The last track especially. It ends the album well. It’s more spacious, with very simple hooks. Is that your homage to hip-hop?
MK: Kind of. The idea was to try and do something that was nearly impossible to translate live without just pushing 'play'. It’s going to be a hard thing to do, to reinvent that song entirely. It is that wind down of just taking your mind outside of everything else and allowing it to marinade. After everything that happened here, we’re giving you a sonic break. To let it sink in.
G: You do that with the interlude, too.
MK: You want to leave sonic breaks. Mental breaks. This is a person who used to listen to vinyl. This is where my head comes from. People now aren’t listening like that. Though vinyl is back on the rise, apparently so. But it’s never going to come back.
G: Live, you’re renowned for maintaining high standards. People who’ve played with you say your bassist had to learn 90 songs to a level of perfection. Have you ever had to be really brutal to people to get them to learn?
MK: Yeah, we’ve had people who will never be back in our projects because they can’t play the notes right. That’s for fucking fact. You don’t get to be here. We’re trying to present something here and it has to be spot on. I’m not Buddy Rich, but I’m definitely a prick when it comes to, 'you got to do this thing right.' This is for the kids who saved all this money up to come to this show, and they want to experience this thing, so you got to get it right.
G: You’ve worked with big cinematographers on your videos – even Fight Club director David Fincher...
MK: That was a million dollar video. I’m not going to do that again. That’s just stupid. One million dollars for a video. That’s just fucking dumb, especially when there’s no more record industry, really. We can’t afford that. That’s just ridiculous.
G: I think when people think of big bands they think of APC, and to hear someone in your position say things are tough is alarming. Is it like there’s only very few people earning a hell of a lot, like the Beyoncés and Sheerans. What about you, whose sales are less than theirs?
MK: Yeah those projects are so tied in with a commercial stream that when a Beyoncé album or a Jay Z album comes out it’s… attached. When you bought that water, somehow you bought their album. You get to McDonalds, Wal Mart, Starbucks and somehow, when you’re paying for a coffee, you inadvertently bought an album and you don’t even know you did it, so their numbers are skewed. For us, back when I was releasing albums in the 90s and early 00s, if your album came out and you sold 200,000 copies in the first week you were considered a disaster. 200,000 copies! Nowadays, depending on the week, 20,000 albums is the number one position. So that’s 10 percent of the income. Touring is the only way to do it. You have to present a show and deliver it live.
G: ‘Eat The Elephant’, the first song, reminds me that you’re Anglophile musicians. You’ve talked about Killing Joke in the past...
BH: Yeah. Although listening for inspiration and listening for enjoyment are two different things. I’m a product of the late 70s, early 80s, music then seemed to be on the fringe, not for mass consumption. The British, what we call ‘dark wave’, I don’t know what you call it, were interesting to me because everything was force fed to me – The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and The Who. Rock radio was the equivalent today of hip-hop and pop. It was my musical DNA, all made up of that concentrated time.
G: I didn’t realise how interconnected a lot of the big bands who blew up in California and Seattle in the 90s were before they were big. It’s weird how one thing that seems to unite you all is that you share a love of a lot that sort of music. Dave Grohl also talked about Killing Joke a lot.
BH: Yeah, I don’t find it that odd. One thing Maynard and I kind of connected on were bands like Killing Joke and Swans. I hadn’t met a lot of people who liked them. It’s like finding someone with an obscure comedy that you get, or a Fellini film. ‘Oh, you saw the beauty in that awful thing?' When you have that connection, you draw off your guard and wonder, ‘what else is inside of this person?’
G: Can you remember the first time you listened back to this album? Do you remember what emotions overcame you?
BH: I haven’t listened to it with enjoyment as the goal. I’ve only listened with scrutiny. I know Maynard has.
G: What did he say about it?
BH: I know he’s played it to people and sat around and had a drink. I think he’s proud of it. I’m now just thinking about the live show. I’m taking a first impression glance at the pieces. Each guitar part, take it to the computer, colour code it. Once I get all that done I think, maybe, let’s listen without bias.
G: There’s an Iron Maiden-esque feel to ‘The Doomed’ as well as your shoegazey walls of sound. You must have been into metal.
BH: I wasn’t that into metal. But I was into Ozzy Osbourne’s first two records, so I was a big Randy Rhodes fan, but everything else I listened to was very different from that. On the backside of Blizzard Of Ozz I think I had Seventeen Seconds by The Cure. I really did get into Randy’s playing. But everything else I listened to was British new wave stuff.
G: The song ‘Eat The Elephant’ is about loss, so it’s very emotionally driven. When Maynard put lyrics to that, can you tell he’s taken a step back and become abstract?
BH: No. I think, the beauty of Maynard is that he can always surprise you and you never know. It was written. I wrote vocals and everything. I had almost finished the song. And I remember being in tears finishing that song. And you never know what he’s going to take from it.
G: It refers to two people dying - were they Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington?
BH: Yes. I met Chris, but we weren’t close. I was closer to Chester. I wrote that song to collaborate with him. He had asked me to potentially co-write some of the new Linkin Park record. So I started that song with him in mind, two years prior. But after he passed away I got off my arse and finished it. What I would have done had we got together.
Eat The Elephant by A Perfect Circle is out now. You can buy the album here