A lot of albums are coming out today (April 20) but none of them have been as long in the offing as A Perfect Circle’s highly-anticipated comeback album Eat The Elephant. Released via BMG – who are currently riding high on the back of delivering Kylie Minogue her first No.1 in eight years – the album marks the 14-years-in-the-making return of one of rock’s most revered bands.
In their in-depth March Music Week feature, APC’s enigmatic frontman Maynard James Keenan and musical mastermind Billy Howerdel revealed how they got the band back off the ground for their first studio release since 2004’s Emotive. In the intervening 14 years, there have been a few sporadic tours and greatest hits/live releases, but not much else. And for very good reason.
Keenan has been laying the groundwork for the follow up to his other band Tool’s 2006 opus 10,000 Days, launched his new, entirely independent band Puscifer (three albums and counting), collaborated on his biography, and oversaw the expansion of his Caduceus Cellars winery in Arizona. Meanwhile Howerdel welcomed two children into the world, debuted his solo project Ashes Divide, and scored the 2017 indie film D-Love.
Through a masterclass of scheduling – and with help from fellow wonder musicians Matt McJunkins (Ashes Divide, Puscifer, Eagles Of Death Metal), James Iha (Smashing Pumpkins) and Jeff Friedl (Ashes Divide, The Beta Machine, Puscifer) – they have not only managed to revive A Perfect Circle, but also deliver a modern classic. It’s a dark, beautiful record and a progressive one too, with songs like Get The Lead Out and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy-literate So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish pushing their trademark atmospheric rock sound into breath-taking new directions.
“Do you present things the way your established fans from 14, 15, 16, 17 years ago are used to hearing?” pondered Keenan in the Music Week feature. “Or do you write from where you are right now? That’s a difficult balance. I’m of the mind that, fuck it, let’s write looking forward, not backwards. That was my whole approach, to drag things ahead of us.”
In the feature they outlined their vision for Eat The Elephant, their healthy scepticism of the music industry – based on accrued experience – and explained why their new relationship with BMG is working so well.
Back in 2016, Keenan once told your correspondent that the music industry was starting to look like a prehistoric tar pit, one where you could see music executives and radio DJs slowly sinking into the ooze.
Here, in an unread portion of Music Week's interview, we ask Keenan and Howerdel to take us further inside their new masterpiece and where they stand in relation to the aforementioned “tar pit”…
So, the music industry to which A Perfect Circle are returning is finally in growth again. I’m curious to know, a few years on, do you still see it as a tar pit?
Keenan: “I think it was a necessary tar pit at the time, it was definitely out of balance – the Sith had taken over and needed some Jedi to balance shit out. I think it’s flipped around now somewhat more in favour of the bands, only because people are, in fact, running for their lives. [The labels] make it out of the tar pit and they realise they can’t go back, so they’re finding ways to co-exist with these very difficult artists who are also greedy. But, the biggest, hugest hurdle to get over is the entire age of entitlement where everyone wants something for free. And no-one wants to pay.”
Was there a sense of hubris to labels before, then?
Keenan: “Oh yeah, but I think the positive aspect of music nowadays is that if you have something to say, talent to present, you can actually shine in the social media world. You can actually make a mark and build on that, provided there’s depth. I think the downside is that I’m not sure that a lot of people recognise depth anymore – the clickbait stuff ends up getting out because everything’s about the clickthroughs, everything’s about the monetised industry, it’s nothing to do with the truth, the talent. It has to do with ‘dumb shit sets himself on fire’.”
Your single Disillusioned talks about how technology is having a pernicious effect on culture, and you’ve also acknowledged the inherent irony of having to, in part, release (and promote) that single via smart phones. How do you negotiate that divide between what makes artistic sense and what makes business sense?
Keenan: “It’s all about moments, isn’t it? You can’t be a boxer 24 hours a day, you’re going to have brain damage by the end of the week. You take your moments of recovery and reconnect and disconnect. Like with everything you’re doing, there’s going to be that moment. I can only write for about an hour sitting at a fucking computer, sitting there dicking around with this thing. I have to get up and take two hours to completely re-arrange a cabinet or a closet or a garage. Just a mental break, stop, unplug, turn all the electronic shit off and just inventory the wine cabinet or wash the car. Those kind of things.”
Speaking of the era in which we live, both lyrically and musically, Eat The Elephant seems very much in tune with our troubled times. Do you feel like the timing’s right to make the most of this return in more ways than one?
Howerdel: “Absolutely, I think the songs are relevant. Maynard writes all the lyrics so I can step outside of that and hear that. It’s very relevant and very heavy in content. Some of it’s pretty dark, but I’ll say this: Maynard’s definitely grown. He’s not lost any of the things that I found in his strengths in the beginning; he’s gotten smarter and wiser.”
Given there’s 14 years of waiting involved in this release for fans, how do you want them to listen to it?
Howerdel: “For a long time, that’s what I want. For today, tomorrow, next year, in 10 years. This record, or any other record we’ve made, the intention is to have it be as timeless as possible.”
The cover of Eat The Elephant is very arresting and APC have always been a very visually striking band. How much effort has gone into that this time around?
Howerdel: “Maynard had a very strong idea where he wanted to go, and this was some months back. He told me about it, and I misunderstood exactly how he wanted the cover to be. I thought it was going to be what it is, but a different presentation of it. Whatever it is [we work on], it might make me uncomfortable, it might be something I disagree with, but ultimately, I trust where he’s going to go. Sometimes it might be a place where I think, ‘This is not what I would want to do,’ or ‘This is great.’ Whatever those things are, he’s been around a while, and I do try to keep in mind that he’s got a lot of moving parts, as well as having two other bands, a lot of history [and an idea of] where he would like the evolutionary arc of his career to go. So I give a lot of leeway to that."
I want people to listen to this album for a long time. Today, tomorrow, next year, in 10 years...
APC are releasing the singles The Doomed/Disillusioned as a lavish, limited edition vinyl package – it’s a lesser-spotted approach in 2018. Why do it?
Keenan: “I’ve been doing it with Puscifer for a long time. I’m not sure how far back the records go, the Billboard Charts, but Puscifer released Cuntry Boner on iTunes as a physical single, and we were the No.1 country dance hit on the Billboard charts for, like, six straight weeks.”
You should be proud of that one…
Keenan: “Absolutely. It’s not even the tip of the pyramid, it’s the glowing star above it [laughs].”
What was your relationship with physical music growing up?
Howerdel: “It was everything. Especially because mostly, if I heard a new band, it was on this radio station that played the interesting kind of British New Wave stuff that most radios didn’t play. But for the most part, I’d go to this record store [and buy] on the recommendation of the snob behind the counter that I trusted would just tell me, ‘If you like this, then you’ll like this.’ They would curate things. So I would get a ride there, my parents drove me to the record store, and I had 20 minutes to sit and open this packaging, look at it, and be enveloped in this world, with the anticipation of what it was going to sound like. That was such a teaser and foreplay of what was to come.”
And why do you think physical music is becoming important again?
Keenan: “Well, the physical thing is coming back around in a way because there’s a whole generation of hipsters that are rebelling against the digital age that came right before them, and then you have a bunch of us – we’re dying – it’s our last grasp at something real to grab. We're shopping again. Our generation is going back out and buying vinyl because we’re afraid to die. [laughs] Am I wrong? I dunno...”
Could we get some more optimism, please?
Keenan: “Generally, breaking it down to psychology 101, fear of death motivates people. If you’re out there thinking there’s some sort of crescendo happening soon, you start to reconnect in that last hour, when you go back over the things in your life. You know, at the end of every great movie when someone’s passing away, there’s the revelation of reconnection. There’s the connection I think people are seeking – for them it’s the physical connection with an actual piece of vinyl, an album that somehow resonated in their lives and they’re hearing something they hadn’t heard before now they’re listening again. And they’re hearing something new.
[With] the machines writing pop music and the whole digital age of DJs and, I guess they call it the hive mentality, which is an awful term – I don’t know why people call it that – I feel like now we’ve lost touch with that rock approach, punk rock. People in a room making noise, finally finding each other, and presenting that in a live, friction-based setting of actually creating things in front of you, rather than it being something that’s just ‘push the button and play’. I feel people are coming back around to that, to understanding that connection. There’s something to it. So when you grew up hearing some of those things come out, it was like, ‘Holy shit, this friction is amazing’ and then you kind of lost it for a while, when things have gone the way they’ve gone. Now we’re starting to see people come out and bang on their instruments, although now we’re not as relevant. At Coachella, the rock stage is the second stage – everything else 'push play' is on the mainstage”
Our generation is going back out and buying vinyl because we’re afraid to die
Maynard James Keenan
It’s often said that rock hasn’t adapted to the streaming world like pop and hip-hop. What’s your opinion on rock right now?
Howerdel: “Well it’s just lost the 'o-c-k' and now has 'a-p'. Rap has now become that dangerous, unpredictable, constantly evolving, cultural juggernaut.”
Do you think rock might come back?
Howerdel: “I think so, I think people playing their instruments and human vulnerability is what will. That campfire interaction between us is baked into our DNA from 200,000 years ago, like telling a story around a campfire, or feeling dangerous. The most dangerous thing is when something is being played live, and you know that anything could go wrong at any time. That’s where I say something like Jack White is amazing to me. I look up to him as one of the true rockstars. When I’ve seen him play, it does feel dangerous. It feels like it’s out of tune and he’s pulling it in, and it feels like any minute it could go wrong. I think the more imperfect rock is, the more it will be received on a grand new scale.”
Finally, Maynard, you once said that, for all the troubles the music industry faces, you believe things would swing back around again in a beautiful way– what do you anticipate that being?
Keenan: “I can’t. I won’t be able to. I am the dinosaur that doesn’t see the tar pit until the meteor is coming. I wouldn’t know. I’m aware the changes come, I’m not aware of how they’re going to come – because if I could predict it, then somebody else could predict and would be way ahead of it and be on top of it. I think a lot of this comes by accident, they stumble into it – like penicillin. It just sort of happened by accident. I think we’ve seen some positives like we mentioned before, the label and us being together in a mission to get some stuff done, tell some stories and sell some records, now that relationship is fixed. But the consumer still hasn’t figured out what it means to pay, to understand the value of something. The only way for that to really come all the way around is to lose it all.
What does that mean? Well, speaking way out there – a global solar flare [laughs] that takes away anything digital, a galaxy-wide EMP that wipes out all your files. And then you’ll have people on the corner going back to playing acoustic instruments and helping you enjoy the day that you just spent toiling to make sure you can live tomorrow. That gathering around the fire. We’re talking extremes. That’s on the outer edge of that explanation, but you could whittle that metaphor back and figure out, ‘So what does it mean for people to lose their ability to hear the music?’”
Subscribers can read the full March A Perfect Circle Music Week interview here. You can watch the video for APC's single TalkTalk below.