By Liz Tracy
By David Rolland
By Alex Rendon
By Terrence McCoy
By Natalya Jones
By County Grind
By Liz Tracy
By Chris Joseph
It sure sounds like a good band on paper: A slightly obsessive-compulsive songwriter named Billy with a shaved head and lots of famous musician pals. A singer (also bald) from a dark, foreboding, prog-metal band that hasn't released a record in four years yet still boasts a huge underground following. A guitarist who was in another cult fave. A drummer who was the secret weapon on records for everybody from Indigo Girls to Paul Westerberg. And a bass player who doubles on violin and just happens to be attractive and female.
But A Perfect Circle is more organic than the sum of its parts suggests; the band formed by slow gravitational pull rather than some marketing exec's brainstorm. Songwriter-guitarist Billy Howerdel and singer Maynard James Keenan of Tool met in 1992 but didn't start working together until 1996. Howerdel met bassist-violinist Paz Lenchantin a year later. Guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen, who was in the criminally underrated atmospheric rock band Failure, joined the following year. And like clockwork, one year later the current roster was established when drummer Josh Freese (Devo, Vandals) replaced Primus' Tim Alexander. The group's clinically precise alt-metal debut, Mer de Noms, definitely sounds as if it was written by a former guitar tech for Nine Inch Nails and the Smashing Pumpkins and the vocalist for Tool, yet the way Freese and Lenchantin navigate the sinewy grooves and shifting guitar dynamics liberates the sound.
APC is Howerdel's vision, but the obvious shorthand description of the band remains "Maynard's side project." The intense singer goes to great lengths to characterize APC as anything but a Tool offshoot, even disguising himself with a long black wig.
During an interview before the band left Los Angeles to open for Nine Inch Nails' "Fragility 2.0" tour, Keenan said emphatically, "Billy really is the main songwriter in this band. He writes all the music; he did all the producing, all the engineering. It's his band."
Howerdel himself offers a more balanced perspective: "Maynard being in Tool is a huge thing -- anything that the guy's name is on is huge," he notes, crediting APC's 20 sold-out club shows last fall, before the album was even released, to Keenan's status. But Howerdel also notes that the radio success of APC's first single, "Judith," might have garnered some fans. "This album sold more than any Tool album did in its first day and in its first week," he says. "That has to be due to something."
In fact much of A Perfect Circle's success can be directly linked to a thirst for any new Tool-related material. For a while in the mid-'90s, Tool's menacing, progressive-meets-metal sound seemed likely to inherit the Jane's Addiction throne, particularly after the quartet stole the show at 1993's Lollapalooza. Rather than offering wanky, guitar solodominated metal, Tool's sound is more textured. The band had a platinum album with 1993's Undertow and a multiplatinum smash with 1996's Aenima but has since all but dropped from the radar after a legal wrangle with its label.
Yet a one-off show headlining the Coachella Music Festival in Southern California last year proved Tool can still put asses in the seats. You see a lot of black Tool T-shirts among the crowds at any major metal show, from OzzFest to Marilyn Manson. The band connects to alienated kids, mainly via enigmatic frontman Keenan. But his lyrics aren't simply the raging-rat-in-a-cage type -- he prides himself on encouraging his fans to think for themselves. He is also a natural, charismatic performer. At Coachella, Keenan engaged in some call and response with his audience: First he explained that the French word for yes is oui and that the Spanish word is si. Then he had the crowd chant all three words in a row. Most people in the crowd had no idea they were screaming, "Yes, we see!" He was wearing nothing but a Speedo and body paint at the time.
Still, as engaging as Keenan's other band is, APC's aural palette extends far beyond Tool's multiple shades of black. Keenan sings more than yells on Mer de Noms, and the band shifts in and out of quiet passages without sounding as if it's following a metronome. Another telling difference: Tool's last record was produced by Dave Bottrill, who, though he's known for his work with such gear huggers as Peter Gabriel, David Sylvian, and King Crimson, recorded most of Mer de Noms in Howerdel's garage. Intense and heavy -- as expected -- the disc also has a postpunk tension, thanks to the band's rhythmic interplay. Released in May, APC's debut sold a thundering 188,000 copies in its first week.
It's a long climb from Howerdel's beginnings as roadie for a crappy Guns N' Roses wannabe. After he left that gig, Howerdel lived in about ten different places all over Los Angeles; around 1991 he hooked up with the ska/punk/funk/metal pioneers of Fishbone. In several years of working for the group, he managed to avoid the dreaded "trombone-catching" duty, which involved a horn thrown 30 feet from the stage. Even that particular assignment, Howerdel is quick to point out, was not nearly as risky as his job with another long-time employer, Nine Inch Nails. "That was a war zone," he recalls.