A Perfect Circle will release its first album in 14 years, Eat the Elephant, on April 20—a date that just so happens to fall in between the band’s performances at Coachella, on Sunday, April 15 and 22.
The album is one of the year’s most highly anticipated releases; it’s the fourth studio album by A Perfect Circle, founded in 1999 by Billy Howerdel, who at the time was a guitar tech for the band Tool. Maynard James Keenan, the frontman of Tool and Puscifer, was interested in the project after hearing some demos Howerdel played for him. The band put out its debut album, Mer de Noms, in 2000, and follow-up Thirteenth Step in 2003; both went platinum. The success and popularity of the band continues to be on the same level as Tool, even after the controversial third album, Emotive, in 2004, which was a collection of “reimaginings” of famous anti-war songs.
The band went on hiatus in early 2005, but returned to touring in 2010. In addition to Howerdel and Keenan, the current lineup includes guitarist James Iha of the Smashing Pumpkins; Palm Springs native and touring Eagles of Death Metal bassist Matt McJunkins; and drummer Jeff Friedl.
Eat the Elephant is another timeless rock album—in an age when rock records are being forgotten. (I received a preview copy before the interview.) It’s an offering that will offer hope to what is left of rock’s faithful audience, and will make for an interesting backdrop at a Coachella festival full of new-era mumble-rap artists–and very little rock music.
During a recent phone interview, I asked Maynard James Keenan why the band reunited.
“That’s a good question, but I don’t think it was about either of us missing it,” Keenan said. “I felt that Billy and I went off to do other things for a while, and he was very happy doing Ashes Divide, and I was doing Puscifer. I think it was just time. It wasn’t so much that we missed it, but we felt more like it was time to get back to work on that stuff.”
Tool and Puscifer seem to reflect different sides of Keenan as a music artist—so what does A Perfect Circle offer him artistically that his other bands don’t? He hesitated for a moment.
“I feel like it’s different conversation,” he replied. “… I don’t really think (A Perfect Circle) provides me with something that the other bands don’t; it’s just different puzzles—and I like puzzles!”
Between 2010 and the announcement of Eat the Elephant last year, fans speculated whether a new album would ever become a reality.
“We started recording it in late summer 2017 when I was in harvest”—Keenan owns wineries in Arizona—“and we hauled ass and finished it,” he said. “We had the first conversation about it and delivered it to be mastered in under a year. I think that’s pretty fast, honestly. Before, I would sit with Billy, and he would do what he was doing. I would try to get some vocals in there in between, but this time because of the digital age, I was able to share files, and I focused doing vocals with my Puscifer partner, Mat Mitchell, while Billy was doing guitars and drums getting all of that recorded. We could actually get twice as much done in a day. It was a nice break to get down with a vocal and look online, hearing stuff that he’d done that I hadn’t heard yet. It was pretty cool.”
Eat the Elephant has a wide variety of different sounds that lead to all kinds of emotional possibilities for songs.
“The sounds in general are what I’m reacting to,” Keenan explained. “Whenever Billy comes up with things that are challenging or different, it inspires you to go down that rabbit hole and see how far you can take it.”
I asked what it took to make A Perfect Circle sound new in the modern era. “That’s definitely a puzzle, and you’re absolutely right. Trying to reinvent yourself can be daunting for people who have never had to reinvent themselves. I kind of do it for a living, so I’m covered,” Keenan said with a laugh.”
While Keenan has never publicly supported any political candidate, he is most certainly politically engaged. The press release officially announcing the new album joked about Keenan’s points of view about Donald Trump and former President George W. Bush.
“Boy, was I ever wrong about that guy. What I wouldn’t give to have ol’ Dubbya back in the White House right now,” he said.
Keenan said now is an important time for rock musicians.
“I think as an artist, in the words of Henry Rollins, this is what you train for, and why you listened to Dead Kennedys when you were a kid. This is your time, and this is our moment to shine as punk-rockers. This is it,” he said. “As far as expressing your opinion, politics is about people, and people expressing themselves and interacting. This is us interacting: ‘Here are a couple of opinions; here are some approaches; and here are some things you never thought about, and it’s your turn.’”
When A Perfect Circle released Emotive in 2004, George W. Bush was up for re-election, and the Iraq War was in full swing. Keenan said in a statement posted to the band’s website in 2004: “Look, clearly I’m supporting anyone but Bush in this upcoming election, but I’m not telling anyone who to vote for with this new album. I’m still just trying to encourage people to think for themselves … to stop buying into this absurdity and rampant fear.” When I used the description of “anti-war cover songs” to describe the album, he stopped me.
“Not necessarily; it was more about expressing the voices of people who came before us who had something to say, and presenting those stories in a different light—not necessarily in the specific music they used to express those thoughts; we expressed those thoughts in different beds of music,” he said. “Arguably, we pretty much rewrote the music to all those songs to give you an idea of what that story looks like or sounds like in a different setting.”
I asked if Keenan was he surprised that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were, in some ways, still going on 14 years later.
“I drink a lot more wine now,” Keenan said with a laugh. “That’s my reaction: Yep, I’m going to have a glass of fucking wine.”
Speaking of wine, I asked Keenan—as a winemaker, the owner of Caduceus Cellars in Jerome, Ariz.—if making wine can be daunting, given there are things over which winemakers have no control.
“I think the hardest part for most artists—and I’m speaking to all of you artists out there—is knowing when the fuck to let go,” he responded. “You have a desire to create a thing, but once you’ve created it, and you’re going to release that bird out of the cage, it’s not yours anymore. You have to let that go. Letting go of shit you can’t control is probably the hardest lesson for anyone, really, but especially to artists who get all precious about shit.”
Keenan is also a vegetable gardener.
“I’ve done it all my life, having lived in Michigan in the middle of a bunch of peach and cherry orchards,” he said. “My dad had extensive gardens for our house. That’s basically what we lived on. It was always something that I was going to return to regardless. No matter where I’ve lived, I’ve always had a garden.”
Keenan said his upbringing in the Midwest contributed greatly to his outlook on hard work.
“I kind of refer to my people in West Michigan as snow-shovelers,” he said. “If you’re a shoveler, you know you couldn’t get from Point A to Point B in the winter without removing the obstacles. You get used to understanding puzzles and understanding what it takes to get somewhere. You start to respect or have an appreciation for or empathy and sympathy for people who do other jobs around you. When things are super-cozy, you end up with entitled people. People who somehow find success accidentally and end up touring or on movie sets, they don’t (appreciate) the grips, the carpenters, the stage managers—they don’t have any appreciation for those people and how hard they work if they’ve never had to actually do that job. You’ve heard that cliché before: If you’ve never done it, you just don’t actually know.”
Keenan has played Coachella in the past with all three of his bands—but this year is definitely different, considering how few rock acts are on the bill.
“I guess it’s an indication of where things are. It’s interesting,” he said. “You feel a little bit like a dinosaur, which is fine. Feeling like a dinosaur can be inspiring: Get off your butt, right?”
I asked what Keenan felt it would take to resurrect rock music.
“You’re going to see things coming at you that you didn’t even expect. That’s the nature of punk rock—that anarchist mentality, that reacting outside of the box intuitively, instinctively, situationally or even environmentally,” he said. “That’s what brought us N.W.A., and that’s what brought you the Stooges. All those things kind of happened, and you can’t plan it. I think we’re going to see a lot of reactions come out of this political climate, social climate, economic climate and artistic climate. You’ll see someone coming out and swinging for the fence in a way where they aren’t trying to do that—it’s just happening. But then it will settle back into the art.
“Back in the punk rock days, everything was about … just being mad, breaking shit and fucking playing as fast you can. Then someone comes along like Minor Threat, where there are almost melodies there. Ian MacKaye and those guys took off in a great direction, because they brought back an artistic approach to punk rock. Their attitude and what they stood for was more about the punk rock. The music started settling into something you could enjoy and listen to over and over again. The same thing (happened) with N.W.A., and that progressed into some amazing music with Dr. Dre.
“I think we’ll have our punk-rock moment soon. Maybe we’re already having it—and I’m just too old to recognize it.”