Originally formed in 1999 by Tool singer Maynard James Keenan and guitarist Billy Howerdel, the alternative rock act A Perfect Circle began in a truly organic manner.
In the mid-'90s, Howerdel, a roadie for the ska-punk band Fishhone, met Keenan when Keenan’s band Tool opened for Fishbone. Howerdel decided to give Keenan and Co. some assistance with setting up their gear.
“I was just helping those guys,” says Howerdel in a recent phone interview. A Perfect Circle performs at 8 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 18, at the Wolstein Center. “They were a baby band and didn’t have sophisticated techs.”
After that Fishbone show, they bumped into each other again years later. Howerdel needed a place to stay, and Keenan had an extra room for rent. Howerdel moved in and set up a studio in his bedroom. When Keenan heard some demos that Howerdel was working on, he became intrigued.
“He said the stuff sounded good, and he could see himself singing on it,” says Howerdel. “That was the launching point of the band.”
Tool's popularity was surging at the time. So how did Howerdel convince Keenan to devote time to another band?
“I didn’t,” he says. “He was the one that mentioned it. One thing about me is that I’m horrible at marketing and self-promotion. I will talk you out of whatever I’m doing. [Keenan] just said he could hear himself singing on the music. I didn’t think much of it as a time. I took it as a compliment. It’s kind of like, ‘Oh, that dress looks nice on you.’ He got more serious and inquired more and asked for a song, and I gave it to him, and he started singing to it. No convincing on my part. I think [the Tool album] Ænima
was just done, and the tour wrapped at that point. They were like a theater band at that time. They were doing big clubs and theaters.”
Howerdel says his influences are much different than you might imagine, given that A Perfect Circle plays heavy prog rock-inspired music.
“Elvis Costello was my biggest one growing up,” he says. “I was a nut. I also liked the Cure. Once I started playing guitar, which was right before my 17th birthday, I got into Ozzy’s first two records. Rock ruled the airwaves then. As a kid, I was into. Zeppelin and Skynyrd. The music that was more of my thing was what they call Dark Wave — Killing Joke and Echo and the Bunnymen and the Smiths.”
Howerdel and Keenan worked on a few songs and then made their debut at the Viper Room, the trendy Hollywood club that actor Johnny Depp once owned.
“I remember that show very well,” he says. “We had two songs. He sang on ‘The Hollow’ and ‘Orestes.’ Those were our benchmark songs. That was the spring of 1999. We booked a show to put a fire under our ass to get some songs going. I had a bunch of other songs and he quickly started writing them. I was nervous. After I got on stage, it was all fine. I had been in a band in high school. It was a cover band with other 17-year-olds, but I never really played until that first show.”
The band’s debut, 2000's Mer de Noms
, showed off the band's prog rock sensibilities as songs such as "Orestes," a ballad that features synthesizer flourishes and a brittle guitar riff, suggest Keenan's softer side.
With 2003’s Thirteenth Step
, the band explored new musical territory and emphasized its dark side on moody tunes such as "The Package" and "The Noose," a song that features shimmering guitars and electronic bleeps and blips.
“I never really try to write the same song twice,” says Howerdel. “There’s a lane we try to stay in. I would say it’s more of a highway rather than a narrow country road. It has some width to it. We got to experiment a bit more with Thirteenth Step
. It’s the second record I wanted to make.”
, the band covered a wide range of songs written by other artists. Each tune has a political dimension to it, and the album comes off as a protest record.
“Maynard brought that concept up as we were putting together a list of songs to do,” says Howerdel. “Some of the pieces of music weren’t cover songs. They were original songs, but we took the some of the melodies and the lyrics. It’s a terrible business idea because you don’t get paid publishing. ‘People are People’ was going to be a new APC song, but we used the words from the Depeche Mode song. As it started to come together, we did that. It’s hard for me to talk about concepts. That’s not where my head goes. I live in a different space.”
When the band went on hiatus in 2005, Keenan said that he wanted to give Howerdel some space. Howerdel, however, kept writing APC songs even though the band wasn’t touring or recording. He also recorded some music for a video game and recorded a solo record with Ashes Divide.
Then, in 2010, APC reconvened for a three-week run. The band played one album in its entirety each night during three-night stands.
“That was awesome,” says Howerdel. “It seemed like so long, but it was only six years ago. The six years in-between felt like re-learning how to walk again. Now, it doesn’t seem that way. We did a seven-week tour in 2011 and some dates in 2013 in South America and Australia. From 2011 to now, that’s six years, but it still feels familiar.”
The desire to record new music brought the band back together earlier this year. The group recently issued "Doomed," a heavy new tune that features pounding percussion and layers of vocals and plans to write more new songs while refreshing the old ones.
“We wanted to go out and play the old songs and remember who we are,” says Howerdel. “This next run that’s coming up is your chance to see what we used to do. The next time we come back will be in support of a new record and heavily focused on that.”
Howerdel says writing new music has been "interesting." The group has even brought in a producer so Howerdel can concentrate on playing instead of producing.
"In the past, I’ve done most everything on the production side," he says. "Maynard does the vocals, and he’s almost like an executive producer. In the studio, I’m doing ten to 16 hours day. I had this thought that it might be nice for me to be a musician on this record and play guitar and piano and sing backup and program drums and have someone else running ProTools. It’s hard for me to see things visually, but I have a bird’s eye view of the songs. The new single is a powerful song. It’s a bigger song."
Howerdel says it's been gratifying to see the fans come back and admits he can't remember when the group would've last played Cleveland. By our calculation, it's been more than 10 years (the group performed at the Odeon in 2003 and at Tower City Amphitheater in 2004).
"The fact that people have stuck with us doesn’t go unnoticed, and it isn’t taken for granted" says Howerdel. "It’s awesome for us. It’s very nice. I do a VIP walk through before the shows, and it’s something I talk about a bit. Rock might not have the power that other genres have right now, but it still seems to have staying power. It’s a place where I’d rather be."
A Perfect Circle, 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 18, Wolstein Center, 2000 Prospect Ave., 1-216-687-9292 . Tickets: $36.50, wolsteincenter.com.