I had the chance to interview A Perfect Circle/Ashes Divide guitarist Billy Howerdel on Friday to discuss APC’s upcoming releases: the greatest hits set Three Sixty on November 19th and A Perfect Circle Live: Featuring Stone and Echo on November 29th. Howerdel also gave an update on A Perfect Circle and Tool’s next albums, discussed recording Chinese Democracy with Axl Rose, and told a funny story about being accused of scalping when he was Adam Jones’ guitar tech.
Would you still be interested in using a female singer for an extended project, like what you were initially interested in doing before you found Maynard for A Perfect Circle?
Yeah, I probably would be. It’s funny because I met somebody who I considered bringing in on Ashes Divide as a singer. I didn’t tell her, but I was strongly considering that.
Who is the singer you’re referring to?
I’m not telling. I didn’t even tell her, so I’m not sure (laughs).
Were you approached by the label to contribute to Three Sixty or did they ask you to contribute? To what extent were you able to exercise control and give input into the anthology?
Maynard and I take different roles in the band. I wasn’t involved in the Three Sixty part, so I’m not sure even who picked the tracklist or when it came about exactly. But the person who is kind of doing our day to day management stuff presented that idea that the record company was interested. It seemed to coincide well with the box set that we were going to release which in itself is a three sixty account of all our life, every song we’ve ever performed live. So it seemed to make sense to have them released together.
Josh Freese was a key part of A Perfect Circle, why did he leave the band during a largely inactive period and do you envision him being back for another album?
I don’t know. All the members of the band, we’ve always had a rotating cast of players, depending on if someone is available or not. When it came down to 2011, we were going on tour, Josh was able to do the first show before the tour started at one of those festivals in the Midwest. Then when it came time for the tour, he was already pre-committed to Weezer. I thought it was really big of Josh to stay with his commitment to the band that he already signed on with. So I mean, the schedules don’t always allow. When we were going out this year, we [already] had Jeff Friedl on drums back in 2011 to play for Josh. We just continued on, Jeff became kind of our drummer for Ashes Divide, Puscifer, and A Perfect Circle. Josh is playing with other bands and we just happen to have Jeff in place and have used him.
So it’s primarily a scheduling issue when it comes to Josh.
Yeah. I’m sure it’s difficult for Josh to just drop things that he has that are more long term commitments to play with us. We do things a little more sporadically now.
Josh plays with everybody. I even remember him playing with Sublime, or Sublime With Rome, whatever it’s called. He just plays with everybody.
Yeah, he is a machine. Josh is an amazing drummer, there’s no one quite like him.
When it comes to “By and Down,” A fan told me that they talked to you a couple of years ago about it and that you said that it was originally going to come out around December 2011. What pushed back the release of the song for a couple of years?
I guess it seemed to make sense to go on the best of record. Like I said I didn’t pick the tracklisting, but I’m glad that was an idea that was presented to me to put it on the Three Sixty release. I feel personally it’s [one of the] top 3, top 5 A Perfect Circle songs, in my opinion. It felt like, if I was going to give somebody our body of work and if I had to give them just a few songs, that song would definitely be on it. The idea to release that as a new record, we talked about that, if it was going to be on the next batch of songs. It seemed like the right time, enough time had gone by and we had played that song enough that people were familiar with it. But who knows, it just seemed like the right time to do it.
Outside of “By and Down,” over the last 5 years or so there’s been talk of other new songs being in the works over the years, at various stages of completion. How many other songs would you estimate are somewhat written, with music and melody and lyrics. Are there actually fully developed songs?
Yeah there are fully developed songs without lyrics and melody as far as I know. I’ve given Maynard a few, I don’t know how many I’ve given him over the years. But as far as the music end goes, I’ve got 75% of the foundation of [the next] A Perfect Circle record ready to go. I think that all will change once Maynard gets involved and he has more time to focus on it. All those things can change and get ripped up, or maybe stay the same. He might just sing over them the way they are, and then I’ll tighten them up from there. Time will tell, in the beginning of the band that’s the way it was. I had songs that were pretty well realized, and Maynard sang on them. Who knows, it could go back to that or we could find a different direction.
“By and Down” kind of sounds like a fusion of Led Zeppelin and The Cure with a modern twist to it, I really love it. What’s the direction of the other material that you’ve been working on, sonically is it in that vein or is it all over the place? Also how do you decide how to divide A Perfect Circle material with Ashes Divide?
The new stuff to me fits very well within “By and Down.” For me it’s in that collection of songs. They don’t all have that musical journey sensibility to them, like “By and Down” does, but they fit together. As far as like dividing the songs up, I just came up with this idea to re-designate the songs I was working on to be A Perfect Circle songs and not Ashes songs. I felt like I was really coming to the end of finishing the Ashes record, but there was something not sitting right with me. I realized that it was really the new APC record. Whether it is in the end, we’ll see. But I just went and revisited some of the songs, I took a couple of the keystone songs and made them fit within the new Ashes record, but wrote new material. Danny Lohner, who is a great friend of mine and a great producer, he’s been helping me push the bounds of that and find what the voice of Ashes Divide’s sophomore release is going to be.
With Maynard busy with Puscifer and Tool, would you ever consider releasing new A Perfect Circle material out there in EP or single form? Or are you definitely focused on having a full album?
I know that Maynard’s more into smaller releases, I like the idea of a full length record. Maybe I’m just old fashioned that way, but I do enjoy a collection of songs that have somewhat of a common thread to them. They can be a stamp of time, of that moment in time. Anything could happen, I’m flexible once we start working on it. We’ll see where things go, and how many songs are together. There’s reasons to do smaller releases too.
EP’s can get the music out quicker to people but albums are more of a musical statement, and if you look at the sales, albums still sell better than EP’s. Even though albums don’t sell that much period, but it’s still a better commercial thing.
Kind of switching topics real quick, you worked on the Guns N’ Roses album Chinese Democracy for 2 and a half years in the late 90’s, primarily working on a computer with Axl Rose. I read you talking about that a little bit, but the process of making that album still fascinates me. What was actually going on there every day? I know you talked about being there at night with Axl, and the band being in there during the day. Was new material constantly being written, or was material getting reworked all the time? Like I love “There Was A Time,” you actually have a production credit on that. Was the version you were working on actually different than what was released 10 years later. What was going on there?
Yeah, a lot of exploration. On the bad side of it I’d say there was a paralyzed by choices situation. I think on the good side there was just a ferocious approach to wanting this to be the best record possible. Axl is completely driven in that way, he takes it probably more seriously than I think I’ve ever seen anyone take music. He takes it to a more serious place than I’ve ever seen anyone take it. I learned a lot from that, I owe a lot of my studio work ethic to that job. Some things what to do, some things what not to do. I found that I just wanted to sprint and go full focused with A Perfect Circle in the beginning. I left the Guns N’ Roses camp in like September 1999, and we had finished our mix of A Perfect Circle’s record in like January 2000, so there was only like 4 months difference. I really needed to go, it was just time, I had this opportunity and I needed to do it. But I have to say Axl was extremely supportive of APC in the beginning. That was really cool, I got a lot of validation and moving forward from his approval I guess.
Are there any songs that you’d like to cover with A Perfect Circle that you haven’t, to change up the setlist a bit more especially since you’ve performed all of the albums top to bottom live?
Nothing comes to mind right now. I’ve thought of some with Ashes Divide, we’ve done one cover song with Ashes. No, (laughs) we’ve got a lot of covers. I’m looking forward to writing more original music.
Any crazy stories from when you were [Tool guitarist] Adam Jones’ guitar tech? Just a funny story that you’ve never told before.
Not really specifically about being his tech. I remember getting in trouble on that tour. This was really weird, there was someone on the crew in the production or something that accused me of selling bootleg tickets or something (laughs). I had two guests that were coming for a show, they couldn’t make it so I went out to go cut out scalpers in front of the venue. I looked for someone who was going to buy two tickets from a scalper, and specifically waiting for a scalper to really jack someone. I don’t remember the details exactly, but somebody was going to pay 100 bucks per ticket for a show that was probably 25 bucks and it was sold out. So I just walked up right when they were about to do the transaction and just said, ‘Here’s two tickets.’ They said how much, and I said ‘Happy birthday’ and then walked away. I wasn’t going to sell them. I guess this person saw me doing this and thought I had sold them for money and lit me up about it. I was really pissed off. Having someone accuse you of stealing something when you were just trying to do a good deed (laughs). So I guess that’s a story I’ve never told, or hadn’t thought about until you asked.
Yeah, little did they know a little bit after that you’d be playing with A Perfect Circle, pretty funny. My last question, I’ll admit a Tool question again, you mentioned in a recent interview again that Maynard is in full Tool mode and that’s why he can’t do [a new album for] A Perfect Circle right now. Do you mean he’s actually writing with them at this point?
I thought it was common knowledge that those guys are putting out a record next year, so he’s been writing for a bit.
That’s good to hear, because a lot of the news that was coming out that they were basically in the same position that you’ve been at with A Perfect Circle. Just writing the music and waiting for Maynard to come about.
Yeah, he’s ‘in demand’ I should say.