Billy Howerdel felt right at home. Before quitting his day job working various tours and projects last year, Howerdel did time with some of rock’s elite: Guns N’ Roses, Tool, Fishbone. He played studio tech, roadie, you name it. He was even Trent Reznor’s guitar tech on Nine Inch Nails’ Downward Spiral tour. For most of the summer Howerdel’s new band, A Perfect Circle, tromped around the country, opening for his former boss. For Howerdel, it’s been just like old times.
“That was the best job I ever had,” he says, almost giddy. “I worked a lot on that tour. Trent went through the most guitars I’d ever seen. I stopped counting at 138. I got really good at putting necks back on guitars by the end of that tour. On the last tour, I’d go backstage and talk with some of Nine Inch Nails’ current crew and be like, ‘Oh, you guys got it so easy now.’”
Howerdel doesn’t have to play techie—or second fiddle for that matter—anymore. A Perfect Circle quickly went from personal secret, Howerdel’s quiet garage band dream, to public spectacle, word of the band spreading across the Internet even before the quintet’s debut, Mer de Noms (Virgin), hit shelves. Now with a gold record is his back pocket and a solo tour crisscrossing the country, Howerdel is watching one of his fantasies play out. “Honestly, I don’t think I could be happier,” he says.
Part of the reason for the hive of buzz: Circle’s frontman, Maynard James Keenan. Mer de Noms (French for “Sea of Names”) is the first record Keenan’s haunting voice has been heard on since his other band, Tool, released Aenima in 1996. When Circle began doing a string of club dates last year, Tool fans scurried for info about Keenan’s new separate-but-equal project. Fans scoured the web for any snippet of music they could get a hold of; the media wasn’t far behind. Once A Perfect Circle hit the road with NIN in June, the onslaught kicked into full gear. Suddenly, Howerdel found himself in the middle of a siege, everyone clamoring for a piece of the band. It’s been non-stop for the last three months. He’s loving every second of it.
“It’s how we dreamed it would be, but we didn’t think it would be this fast,” Howerdel says. “I’ve been in the business so long and seen so many hard times, but I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s instant recognition.”
Yet Howerdel is quick to point out that this is no overnight sensation. Circle has been years in the making. Howerdel began writing much of the material on Mer de Noms back in the mid-’80s, slapping down ideas on an old four-track while he hopped around the globe with various bands. He didn’t meet Keenan until ’92, when he was working a Fishbone tour that Tool happened to be opening. He didn’t ask Keenan to join the project until ’96. From there, every year brought a new member: bassist Paz Lenchantin joined in ’97; Howerdel met drummer Josh Freese while both were working on the infamous Guns N’ Roses album in ’98; and guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen came on board in early ’99.
Mer de Noms was worth the wait. As dark and powerful as a Joel Petter Witkin photo, the record is a head-on collision between beauty and decay, Circle finding a way to blend the caustic world of aggro-rawk with the high-minded philosophy of Jung and Keenan’s own self-loathing. Guitars burst like fireworks before gently sizzling into somber melodies. Keenan’s voice is the dove trying to fly through it all, soaring gracefully but still full of tension.
Tracks like “Magdalena” and “Rose” start out quiet, only hinting at the sinister blasts lurking in the shadows. “Judith” is like pure anxiety run through a Marshall stack. And “3 Libras” is the unthinkable: Keenan sings a ballad full of violin swells and somehow comes off natural. It all makes Mer de Noms sound vaguely like Korn doing a Smiths tribute album. Souls are tortured; redemption is achieved through aggression. Like a bouquet of dead roses, the record can be as delicate and ashy as a rotting petal while still keeping its thorns raging. Howerdel says much of the credit for A Perfect Circle’s balance of power and grace goes to Keenan.
“Some of these songs I never intended to give to Maynard. Like ‘Rose’—I never intended for that song to be on the record,” Howerdel says. “But I decided to let him work on it, and he came back with these words and melodies that just blew me away. I’m amazed at what he did. I would have been impressed with less.”
Even though Howerdel is more than pleased with how the album came out, he’s also fully aware that A Perfect Circle, though at times as chunky as they come, steps outside of the current rap-rock norm. The group is as likely to stir up a mosh pit as it is a think-tank session. Howerdel’s hoping the quintet is just different enough to spark some new flame in the industry, pulling a little attention away from the drivel he now hears on the radio.
“It’s a shame when the record companies only give people four options,” Howerdel says. “They shove those four down your throat, and even if they’re all crap, one of them is still going to be No. 1. Hopefully we can change some of that, give people something they’ve haven’t heard yet that’s got some substance to it. That would be nice.”
A Perfect Circle will play Saltair Sept. 2. Tickets: 800-888-TIXX or www.SmithTix.com.