David Farrier talks to one of the most wildly enigmatic frontmen in music, Maynard James Keenan, and his partner in crime Billy Howerdel about 18 years of friendship, music, and being very, very enigmatic.
Back in the late 90s, Billy Howerdel was hard at work on a highly anticipated new Guns N’Roses record. After working as a guitar tech for giant rock outfits like The Smashing Pumpkins and Nine Inch Nails, he’d found himself working in Axl Rose’s camp, programming and playing guitar on what would eventually become Chinese Democracy.
But at night, or on days off, Howerdel would be hard at work putting those studio skills to use, writing songs for what would become A Perfect Circle.
And then his friend, Maynard James Keenan, the enigmatic frontman of Tool, said he’d like to be the vocalist.
“He offered,” Howerdel says. “I think I was way too shy to ask. Had he not done that, I don’t know what would have happened.”
He’d been actively looking for a female singer – “I wasn’t even considering getting a guy” – but Maynard said he could hear himself singing the songs. Howerdel says it was a “lightning bolt” moment, and A Perfect Circle as we know it was born.
Their debut album, Mer de Noms, produced by Howerdel, was released in 2000 to critical acclaim, spawning singles like ‘Judith’. Fight Club’s David Fincher directed the video and it’s one of the few band performance videos from the early naughts that still stacks up today. Howerdel says the new millennium was perfect timing to release their debut: Keenan’s band Tool were huge – 1996’s Aenima cementing the band as prog rock heroes – and some of Howerdel’s other friends, Nine Inch Nails, were launching a massive arena tour on the back of their magnum opus The Fragile, and offered A Perfect Circle the opening slot.
“Tool at the that time was a theatre band – playing to three thousand, four thousand people people,” Keenan says. Nine Inch Nails’ arena shows introduced Keenan and Howerdel to hundreds of thousands more.
Eighteen years later, A Perfect Circle are back with their fourth studio album, Eat the Elephant. It’s been 14 years since their last, eMotive. That was released to coincide with the 2004 presidential election and consisted primarily of anti-war cover songs.
They weren’t always so political: 2000’s Mer De Noms was more about creating a mood, NME writing at the time, “A Perfect Circle have created a work of morbid beauty. In terms of darkness, it eclipses nearly everything else.” Their follow-up Thirteenth Step – a concept album based around themes of addiction – was “more cerebral than aggressive”, wrote Spin. And then after releasing a defiant eMotive, A Perfect Circle were gone.
Howerdel started a new band, Ashes Divide, and Keenan went on to release and tour in support of Tool’s new record, 10,000 Days. But Howerdel and Keenan didn’t let A Perfect Circle slide completely, touring again in 2010, teasing audiences with the occasional new song.
Some of those songs have now found a home on Eat the Elephant, and while the record is not nearly as political as eMotive, it’s not nearly as cryptic as Mer de Noms, either – at one point quietly pleading us to put our bloody phones down: “Put the silicon obsession down / Take a look around / Find a way in the silence.”
And it’s hard not to listen to ‘Talk Talk’ and not think of the recent Florida shooting – or any modern American tragedy, for that matter: “Thoughts / And prayers / Adorable / Like cake in a crisis / We’re bleeding out.”
“As far as the lyrics go, Maynard’s solely responsible for it,” Howerdel says carefully, when pressed on the themes of their new record.
“So the content and overall message of the record flows from him. Sometimes he invites me in early, and sometimes not, and I don’t pry. More and more, I don’t need to know what he’s got on his mind. He doesn’t need to validate it or run it past me. And similarly, with music, he’s not asking me where the inspiration for something came from. We meet each other in a musical conversation.”
When I talk to Howerdel, he’s on vacation at the beach. He sounds relaxed but measured.
When Keenan James Keenan is connected to my phone, it’s 2.22pm. Monica connects the call. “I’m with A Perfect Circle” she says. “I just wanted to make sure to mention to you he’s only talking about A Perfect Circle, none of his other bands.”
I tell her that’s fine. Part and parcel of talking to Keenan is a set of conditions, parameters: the biggest NDA I’ve ever signed was when I was involved in filming Tool at Auckland’s Big Day Out festival.
“One more thing. He doesn’t discuss specifically the overall themes.”
“Oh, okay,” I reply.
As someone who was raised in a Baptist household, I’ve always been curious about Keenan’s references to Christianity over the years. So one of the first things I ask Keenan about are the overall themes found in ‘Talk Talk’.
I tell him Monica told me not to. “Who was told to tell you that by me… but go ahead,” Keenan says, deadpan.
See, back in 1996, on Tool’s ‘Eulogy’ (which I first heard as a devout Christian) Keenan was yelling, “Come down / Get off your fucking cross / We need the fucking space to nail the next fool martyr”. And on A Perfect Circle’s debut it was, “Fuck your God / Your Saviour / Your Christ.”
Now, 18 years later, he’s quietly singing, “Sit and talk like Jesus / Try walkin’ like Jesus / Try braving the rain / Try lifting the stone / Try extending a hand…” – before swelling up into a wonderfully defiant yell of “Try walkin’ your talk or get the fuck out of my way!”
I ask Keenan if he’s softened somewhat towards Jesus.
“You’re probably reading into it too much, because I don’t even believe that that guy ever existed. So, there’s that,” he replies. “But as a metaphor for if you have a certain set of ideals, and you’re clinging to them – if you have a book, and you claim they’re your rules and you’re not even fucking reading them…
“Generally speaking across the globe, most of those documents, stories, approaches to trying to get some kind of moral code in place that we kind of follow… they’re all coming from a pretty positive place, generally speaking. They’re about surviving something – not surviving each other, surviving the world around us in general. And so when you have clusters of people who claim to be about those things, and ignore them, in favour of I dunno – propaganda, greed, lies, power, fame, stupidity, ignorance – it’s a long list – but I don’t want to get political, either. But when it comes to trusting governments, did you skip history class?” He giggles. “Why would you ever trust one of those?”
He snaps into a character: “Yeah, not this one! These guys are for real, Alright? Cool!”
For a man who told me (via Monica) not to talk about themes, he seems very happy talking about themes. I’m worried Monica might be listening and interrupt. But nothing happens. Keenan, dare I say it, seems to be enjoying himself.
He’ll often bust in when his fans are least expecting it – usually to set the record straight about same inane point being made about one of his bands, be it Tool, Puscifer or A Perfect Circle:
They’re cutting, and often funny, responses. Sometimes the sense of theatre is elevated, like in May when an eager Tool fan didn’t realise he was arguing with Keenan about why Tool’s music has never been available on any streaming sites (it will be soon, going on this and this):
Keenan compares his experience of Twitter to his experience at the dentist. “I was sitting in a dentist’s office, and there is some magazine sitting there open to a page. And the article was ‘When you get married, to your husband, who will decide whether it’s going to be in a Catholic church or a Lutheran church.’ Well, okay, well…”
He stops and chuckles. “I don’t even know where to start with that closed environment with no fucking options, with the very first word! And I feel that’s what the internet does. Like, someone will make a statement, and the statement itself is so fucking off, then an entire argument ensues, and then three arguments deep they go off on another tangent on what was all built on shit!
“I remember doing math in college and high school and garbage in, garbage out, right? If you started with the wrong numbers and the wrong equation then you’re not going to get anything out of it that’s worth anything. So sometimes you’ve got to step in and go, ‘NO! Start over!’”
I tell him I feel like we’re living in a time when our whole reality is based on a rubbish statement that everyone has taken on face value in some way.
“Yeah,” he agrees.
But sticking his head up on social media doesn’t equate to him sticking his head up in real life. Keenan’s shows often come with a blanket camera ban in place. Strictly enforced, 60 fans were reportedly ejected from A Perfect Circle concert last year, after concertgoers ignored prominent warning signs all over the venue. The last time I caught Tool in New Zealand, ushers and security were actively patrolling both seated areas and the mosh pit, making fans put their phones away.
As for the shows themselves, Keenan appears most comfortable performing behind a variety of outfits, wigs and personas.
Because despite being the singer of three bands, Keenan is never the centre of attention. He’s often dressed in some kind of disguise, be it a wig or a full SWAT uniform.
“I mean half the authors I read, I don’t know what they look like,” Keenan says. “They’re creating stories, you can come back to that story over and over, and people then buy the rights, and they make a film to go with the story because the story is compelling. If you muddy up the celebrity then the story then gets to shine a little louder, I think.”
Watching him perform at Auckland’s Spark Arena last year with Puscifer, a great deal of the show consisted of a live Mexican wrestling match on stage, while Keenan sang from the shadows at the back. The last time I saw A Perfect Circle, Keenan started the show behind a sheet.
I tell him it’s sort of remarkable how little of his image exists online. Compared with many others artists and celebrities, his digital footprint is minuscule.
“Just present a good show! Go to your local theatre group to see people putting their all into these performances. It’s only in front of 100 people, but they’re putting their all into it because that’s what they do. They don’t plan on fame, they don’t plan on being famous or being able to afford a jet, right? They do it for the love of it. And so maybe some people aren’t wired that way, and so they need the big jumbotron with their face, with their fake dancing, to kind of distract you from the hollow fucking nature of their soulless beings…”
Keenan trails off and laughs.“I’m just talking shit. I was on a roll, so I went with it.”
“But you understand. The world already feeds this spectacle of trainwreck, broken egos. Giving your power away to somebody who’s got daddy issues or whatever… it doesn’t make any sense to me as an artist. But then when the dopamine addiction takes over, and you’re just looking for the rub, the payoff, and you’ve forgot just how to make the art accurate and tell the story. Tell the story, accurately and I don’t think you need the jumbotron.”
So why bring a rock band back in 2018, nearly 15 years after they’ve released a record, in a world that seems more interested in hip-hop and pop than an hour of progressive rock?
For Keenan, it was simple: “We just ended up touring with Puscifer and it just seemed like the right kind of thing, and the right time. It’s been 14 years. I wanted to see what we could do. We had a few ideas floating around. I dove into them and felt, ‘Okay, it’s probably time’.”
“I totally think it’s a legit question,” says Howerdel. “I didn’t think about it, to be honest. I’ve got kids and one of them is particularly heavy into hip-hop, and I think purposefully I didn’t go down that road. I just think the art would suffer. It wouldn’t be authentic. I sort of picked up where I left off years ago, and went, ‘Another APC record – I remember what this is like.’”
For Keenan and Howerdel, it seems recording Eat The Elephant was about friendship and making music together. There was no driving political message behind it all. They just like to make music for music’s sake.
“You see a lot of older artists freaking out, especially when some political topic comes up because they all jump on the bandwagon to become part of it because they want to feel relevant,” Maynard says. “But it’s not really foremost in our mind. We just like to do things. When you see older musicians touring and just doing their job and digging in, and they haven’t really gone away, they do their thing… I kind of respond more to them. They’re mentors. Just doing their thing. And that’s what I do: just dig in and do it, right?”
I find myself wondering if the two friends feel increasing pressure to “just dig in and do it” as time goes by.
Both men have seen friends and contemporaries pass away recently: people like David Bowie, Chris Cornell, and Chester Bennington.
The recent exodus of musicians is hinted at in their new song ‘So Long And Thanks For All The Fish’. “There are things we have struggled with, like most people our age do. The death of heroes is such a common theme we seem to keep coming back to,” says Howerdel.
Keenan tells me he sees time as being very precious. At 53, the progressive rock star recently had to have a hip replacement. “Years of foot stomping left me with no cushion in my right hip. Full replacement yesterday,” he wrote at the time.
Hate to say it, but he might be getting old. He tells me that yes, he does see time as precious. “Yeah, absolutely.”
His creative time at the moment seems to be spent in two main camps: His music and his wine. The wine has been taking up more and more of his time – working the land, and concentrating on other endeavours like organic farming.
“When you see loved ones depart early, who struggle to even exist at all, you tend to respect the time you have. I think – and most people wouldn’t agree with me – I feel like the music part is more about my legacy. The winery part is about our region’s legacy: I can contribute to that, and I feel like I am part of a much bigger movement and I can nudge that forward. And we may or may not be remembered for our role in it, but it will be handed down to another whole new generation of people who will make hundreds – if not thousands – of families put food on their table, for generations, if we do it right. So it ends up being about us.
“Music, writing a book or doing a painting tends to be about you, and the unfortunate part about that is when you pass away, that’s the end of those things – there’s not going to be any more coming after that. So that sucks! But so having your feet in both worlds, I guess that is respecting that temporary nature.”
With that in mind, it’s somehow fitting that a track on Eat the Elephant was born out of the beginnings of a collaboration between the late Chester Bennington and Billy Howerdel, for Howerdel’s other band, Ashes Divide.
“Chester had reached out and said, ‘What do you think about collaborating on a song?’” Howerdel tells me. “It’s much different in form to where it started: possibly unrecognisable… but the notes are the same. Keenan really liked it and wrote to it. It took on a new shape, almost like a completely new song. I have this strange disjointed attachment to it in that way.”
The song is gentle and swelling and majestic. It opens the record.
I ask both Howerdel and Keenan how they are feeling about their new music being released. They seem content, and excited. But ultimately, they’re both looking firmly into the future.
“I am looking forward to having more wine with Sam [Neill]. He’s a fantastic gentleman,” says Keenan. “So yeah, that is really what it is. We have done the work. Now we will go and play some songs around the world, but it is more about celebrating and reconnecting with people, like Sam. I think those sorts of things are important. Else why are you doing it?”
For Howerdel, this record has been cause for reflection on the project he started nearly two decades ago. “I thought at the very start, in 1998, honestly I was just trying to write the best record possible. I knew just having Keenan in the band meant that we could at least be able to get some club shows under our belt. But it just seemed to take off. I’m lucky to make a living at it, and people still want to listen. It’s a very nice thing.”
A Perfect Circle are releasing Eat the Elephant in America on April 20, bang in the middle of the two Coachella weekends they’re playing.
I tell Keenan, who has played Coachella with all three of his bands in the past, that I’ve only attended once, as a punter. “It was a bit of a shitfight,” I tell him.
“I can’t say what you just said,” he replies, laughing, “because I am playing, but when I have friends that are like 25 or 30 and they say, ‘Hey, let’s go camping!’ I just go ‘I wanna fucking murder all of you.’ Camping! Fuck camping!
“Like if I go camping, I go stay with friends in a cabin somewhere. I don’t know about a tent, ‘cause I used to do that in the army, I already did that – it wasn’t really called camping, it was bivouacs and you were on manoeuvres, right?”
“I live in a population of 500 town, so the idea of being in the middle of a field with 15 or 25-thousand drunk people at a show… yeah, uh, no. Good thing I get to be backstage because the grumpy dude wouldn’t be having it.”
Despite my slight trepidation after my conversation with Monica, I feel I didn’t get “the grumpy dude” today. Both Keenan and Howerdel were in fine form. I think maybe it’s because they’ve made a fine record. The work has been done. Now they get to celebrate.
The Spinoff’s music content is brought to you by our friends at Spark. Listen to all the music you love on Spotify Premium, it’s free on all Spark’s Pay Monthly Mobile plans. Sign up and start listening today.
Join The Spinoff Members for as little as $1 to help us hire more journalists and carry out more investigations. Or pay $8 a month and get a free Toby Morris-designed tea towel!
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.