It’s no secret that A Perfect Circle revolves around just two people. No disrespect to the project’s remaining roster of contributors over the last couple of decades, but a follow-up to 2003’s Thirteenth Step was only going to arrive if Billy Howerdel and Maynard James Keenan rediscovered their collaborative spark.
Following 2004’s politically-tinged covers record, Emotive, the band’s two linchpins turned towards other projects. After putting out a record with Tool in 2006, vocalist Keenan moved onto the experimentally-minded Puscifer, while in 2008 multi-instrumentalist Howerdel released an album under the Ashes Divide alias. A Perfect Circle actually got back on the touring circuit in 2010 – with guitarist James Iha, bassist Matt McJunkins and drummer Jeff Friedl rounding out the group – but a third record of original material remained a distant prospect.
But fans can now rejoice, for that long-awaited release is finally here. The arrival of Eat the Elephant was never quite assured, mind you.
“There were some false starts,” says Howerdel. “The biggest one was the last time we were in Australia, 2013. We were in a van in Adelaide heading to the gig and I was playing James [Iha] a few new ideas, and I really thought at that point we were going to kick off our new record right after that. But for whatever reason we didn’t, and Maynard was still full blast into Puscifer mode at that time, so it took a pause. Then there was a hole in [Keenan’s] schedule and he gave me a ring and thought that he could have some time in the next year or two, and here we are.”
Howerdel has been working towards the album for close to ten years, with the majority of the tracklist coming to life during the last three years. As expected, Eat the Elephant stems entirely from Howerdel and Keenan’s collaboration. Although McJunkins and Friedl each make a fleeting appearance, Howerdel far prefers a studio-oriented process.
“We went on tour last year, we did ten weeks in the States and we started messing around with some things, getting ready for tour,” he says. “And with the two songs we were doing then – ‘Hourglass’ and ‘Feathers’ – it felt good, but it was more that the discovery really happens in the studio. The loose ideas are there, but the discovery happens.
“Maybe it was going back into my comfort zone, writing the way I always have, which is in solitude, getting the basic ideas and then going into the studio and fleshing them out. It’s a non-verbal thing – I know what I want them to sound like, but I don’t know how to explain it. So we just went down that road again.”
Joining Howerdel in the studio this time around was producer Dave Sardy. Sardy has produced records for mainstream pop acts like Noel Gallagher, Fall Out Boy and Catfish and the Bottlemen, as well as working with leftfield bands like Autolux and the Black Angels. Howerdel oversaw production of the band’s earlier releases, but Eat the Elephant’s drawn-out production process impelled him to step away from the boards.
“I asked my manager to look around for producers and see who could help make the record with me,” he says. “I wanted, on the technical standpoint, to take a different approach – to get away from some of the busy work like file management, scheduling, and everything else that goes along with production, but also to sit back on the couch and pick up the instrument instead of sitting in front of the computer and managing all parts at the same time. It was just to see the bird’s eye view of the song.”
Sardy’s employment was, in many respects, liberating for Howerdel, but the altered production method did take some getting used to. “When you’re trying to do something you’ve always done and trying to explain to someone what’s in your head, it can be very challenging. If I have a part that I know the ambience could be a certain way, I could go into Logic with a mouse and keyboard and chop it up. And the other way is to sit back on the couch and say, ‘Hey, how about we try and make this ambience like this.’
“I think the record might have a different sound just from that lack of connection to the controls, and having to say [what I wanted] and then having Dave interpret and then go forward from there. In that way it was great having Dave’s musical mind in the room and being able to bounce ideas or getting new ideas from him.”
While Eat the Elephant deviates somewhat from Thirteenth Step, it ticks a lot of quintessential A Perfect Circle boxes. Along with Keenan’s unmistakable vocal timbre, there are moments of intense, heavy riffage, soft, melancholic instrumentals and highly memorable vocal refrains. A variety of textures are incorporated, from electronic programming and vocal layering to beds of synthesiser and string arrangements.
“You don’t want to repeat yourself, but we stayed anchored to the past a bit,” Howerdel says. “I wrote most every one of these songs on piano or keyboard, which is a much different approach. I’ve always written songs on bass or guitar before. That in itself takes you down twisted roads you’re not used to going down.”
Eat The Elephant is out Friday April 20 via BMG.