At the dawn of the new millennium, nu-metal was clashing with teen pop for dominance on the charts.
A Perfect Circle arrived to offer something refreshingly different.
The brainchild of guitarist/songwriter Billy Howerdel, their debut album was a project years in the making that managed to achieve the perfect storm with the right songs, players, and circumstances.
The history of the band dates back to the early 1990s. Howerdel was a guitar tech whose clientele would come to include the likes of David Bowie, Faith No More, Fishbone, Nine Inch Nails, The Smashing Pumpkins, and Guns N’ Roses. During one such gig in 1991, he met Tool frontman Maynard Keenan and they became friends. In 1997, they became roommates at the singer’s North Hollywood home. One night, Keenan heard some music that Howerdel was playing and became intrigued, and that planted the seeds for their future collaboration. But it was not intentional.
“I think if I would have pushed my music on him, it never would have happened,” admits Howerdel. “I never thought for a second to approach Maynard. It was thin walls, old house. We were roommates, he heard it and literally said, ‘I could hear myself singing on that.’ I just took it as a compliment and not even literal. But then he was like, ‘What do you think?’ sometime later.”
When Howerdel got serious about recording, the first piece in the puzzle was bassist Paz Lenchantin, whom he had met through Tool guitarist Adam Jones. They saw one of her bands perform at a North Hollywood club called CIA (California Institute of Abnormalarts). Howerdel was mesmerized by her performance and developed a good friendship with her. “She’s an amazing multi-instrumentalist,” declares Howerdel. “She sings, plays piano, violin, guitar, and bass.” She contributed many of those musical elements to the album. After Lenchantin was the first to come onboard, Keenan enlisted as well.
Primus drummer Tim Alexander, a friend of both Howerdel and Maynard, originally worked with the band. “He has so many chops and had an interesting musical approach,” says the guitarist. During this time, Howerdel was in the midst of a two and a half year gig which he once called being a “Pro Tools engineer” on sessions for the Guns N’ Roses album Chinese Democracy, for which Josh Freese was then the drummer and through which the guitarist learned a lot about producing. Howerdel tried Freese out on some of his own demos too, and once the drummer left the GN’R project, he was asked to join APC.
“When we played with Josh Freese, it had a different energy,” remarks Howerdel. “I like the precision machine element that Josh brought to the mix. Those are really tough choices and really good choices to have. We ultimately went mostly with Josh, and Tim’s playing on the first song, ‘The Hollow’. He [also] played on the demos of a bunch of songs.”
Session player and future Queens of the Stone Age guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen was the last person brought in to play on a couple of tracks and play live with the band who did some shows in the summer of 1999, including one at Coachella, before recording as a unit. “I have to say he just was zero drama,” says Howerdel of Van Leeuwen. “I didn’t have to show him how to play anything. I would make tapes for people with individual parts, and he’s like, ‘I got it, I got it.’ He’s the only person I’ve ever worked with like that. We have had amazing players throughout the years. [Just like] Matt McJunkins our bass player, he can pick something buried within the weeds and hear what it is, and it makes my job and my life a lot easier.”
Howerdel recalls that the first time that Keenan laid down vocals on anything was around mid-1998 for the songs “The Hollow” and “Orestes”. While the guitarist thought his demos were passable, the singer upped the ante for the album. “Everything was programmed drums up until that time, very a la Treasure by Cocteau Twins,” says Howerdel. “It was very brooding. It was like a DEVO approach to rock music, very mechanical and kind of industrial. Some the things that I gave Josh and Tim to play on were very angular.” He wanted them to not try sounding like a drummer yet “try to humanize the stuff, just not too much.”
The guitarist said that when the full group came on board for the sessions, it brought Maynard‘s performance up further. “He could dig into it,” says Howerdel. “Paz has such a great style, and Troy is one of the best if not the best guitar players I’ve ever played with. He’s just accomplished and easy to get along. He was an amazing live edition.”
On APC‘s first record, Howerdel confesses to scrutinizing every little part of that and even pre-mixing, which he says was very close to what the final result. He said the album’s mixer Alan Moulder was amazing. “I had been around him from the Nine Inch Nails camp,” recalls Howerdel. “He just sharpened, widened, and added depth and the things you want to just put that final icing on it. It was just amazing once it all came together, but I really did try to be overly prepared so I didn’t embarrass myself with my first offering.”
When Moulder was mixing the album in late ’99, major label offers started coming in. A Perfect Circle signed with Virgin because they felt that the label and their executive VP Nancy Berry would treat it like its own entity and not a Tool side project. Plus they figured she was likely the person who was “blasting this record with her [convertible] top-down and enjoying it,” recalls Howerdel. “She became like a sixth band member.”
A Perfect Circle was definitely different than Keenan‘s main band, and whereas Tool would mix his vocals equal to the instruments to obtain a heavier sound, his singing for APC was clearer and more prominent in the mix while the music still retained its punchiness. Some fans feel that Keenan’s vocals were also more diverse here. Howerdel was weaned on early Goth and post-punk like Siouxsie and the Banshees and Killing Joke, but he equally enjoyed British rock if that era like Lloyd Cole and the Commotions and Elvis Costello. Thus it seemed natural that A Perfect Circle would draw influences from different styles. One could argue that the songs on Mers De Nom met at the intersection of goth, metal, and ’90s alternative.
In fact, pioneering 4AD artists Cocteau Twins were a big influence on the shaping of APC‘s sonic milieu. While Howerdel likes all of Cocteau Twins’ music, he was particularly drawn to mid-’80s albums Treasure and Victorialand. “That [latter] record is just beautiful,” he says. “I got to paint whatever picture I wanted to put in the sonic landscape that they were offering. I just wanted to go towards something like that. Like anything else, you’re a melting pot of your influences, and I had a lot of different ones. They just come out in a big soup that hopefully is a different taste that no else has.”
On Mers De Noms, Howerdel wrote the music, and Keenan wrote the vocal melodies and words. The frontman sang over pre-existing songs. The guitarist is still impressed with Keenan’s performance on “The Hollow”. “[In terms of ] what I was singing on that in my demo, which I didn’t even let him hear, I wanted Elizabeth Fraser from Cocteau Twins version 2.0 over some heavier atmosphere,” explains Howerdel, who originally wanted a female vocalist but let Keenan take a shot at it. “He knew what I was going after. It was perfect.”
The resultant album rocks hard but also has an air of melancholy hanging over some of the songs. Many of the guitar sounds, such as on “Magdalena,” invoke ’80s Goth. Mer De Noms is a riff-driven affair, but “Thinking Of You” has a poppy chorus that could have put it in singles contention although it was never released as such.
Howerdel recalls how everything went crazy for the band once Mer De Noms arrived.
The album debuted at #4 on the Billboard Top 200, staying on the charts for a year and going platinum in America. David Fincher (Fight Club, The Social Network) directed the performance video for “Judith,” and a conceptual clip for “3 Libras” directed by Paul Hunter followed in October 2000. Interestingly enough, when Howerdel and Keenan played Judas Priest frontman Rob Halford eight of their songs prior to the album’s release and told him they wanted to release “3 Libras” as the first single, the iconic vocalist suggested that if they released “Judith” (then called “Deal”) first that they would sell a million records. Luckily, they took his advice.
Mer De Noms also sold well in other international markets, and the quintet toured with Nine Inch Nails who were promoting The Fragile, then went on a bill with Foo Fighters and Smashing Pumpkins before headlining on their own. “Everything fell into place really nicely,” says Howerdel.
One funny recollection involves sales in China. He says that Mer De Noms became only the fourth album, including releases by the Rolling Stones and Nirvana, to be approved by the Chinese government for official release. The album went platinum upon its first day of release over there.
“It was the first moment I thought, ‘Holy shit, I’m rich,” reveals Howerdel. “If it was a million records in the States, what the hell is it in China? Then we found out that due to rampant piracy, it was like 50,000 records. But based on that they could estimate that maybe millions of people had it, so they invited us to come play a big festival.” They were ready to book a trip, but international tensions between the U.S. and China at the time scuttled those plans.
Collectors should note that there are extended mixes for “Sleeping Beauty” and “Over” that emerged on other versions of the album. The former had an acoustic intro excised for the sake of the flow of the record, and Howerdel liked the idea of alternate versions for other sources. “I was a big Smiths fan, and I liked all those different [song] versions you could have,” he explains.
The idea with gentle album closer “Over,” which features singing, Lenchantin on piano, and Keenan playing kalimba, was there would be a different version of the song ending three consecutive APC albums. The idea never got realized, but there is an alternate mix plus a live version available from 2010.
As to why the concept emerged, Howerdel states: “I just liked the sentiment and the way Maynard had a very stripped down [approach] and a simplistic mantra that could be flushed out into this half-nursery rhyme, and by the end this full narrative story. That was in theory, but it’s never good to write songs in theory. It was a thought.”
After all these years, “Orestes” is still Howerdel’s favorite song from Mer De Noms and the one to give people a sense of who the band is. He also remembers getting goosebumps the first time he heard Keenan singing “Rose”.
“I buy it,” says Howerdel. “If Maynard is an actor, I’m sold. I’m not taken out of the mood. It’s like that for most everything he does, but that song particular is amazing. There’s something personal in there that is from my world, and I know there’s a lot behind his delivery. That’s the thing with him. He’s not phoning it in. All of him comes forward in the delivery.”
Many of the song titles were names and based on different people that Keenan knew in real life. Even though he worked with him, Howerdel never fully knew the origins of all of the songs.
“I never know, I never ask,” admits the guitarist. “I only wait for him to divulge whatever he wants to about what something is about. At the end of the day, I like to be a listener too. I don’t really need to know what exactly he means. Sometimes he’s very excited to share it, and sometimes he doesn’t.” Certain lyrics are more direct than others. “It’s very personal. [In] the first record, I can hear it. I know some of the stuff.”
The song “Judith” is named after and about Keenan’s mother. She suffered a stroke when she was young and spent half her life in a wheelchair. Despite what had happened she still was a faithful Christian, a concept which the singer grappled within the lyrics. That lead single and other tunes on the album clearly resonated with fans worldwide.
After the first album and tour cycle ended, Lenchantin joined Billy Corgan in Zwan, and Van Leeuwen went on to Queens of the Stone Age. Howerdel and Keenan would remain the two constant members as the group would go through various roster changes, with some past bandmates returning for studio guest spots or tours and live recordings. A Perfect Circle has released the studio albums Thirteenth Step (2003), eMOTIVe (2004), and Eat the Elephant (2018). Keenan has continued on with Tool and Puscifer, while Howerdel created the band ASHES dIVIDE and released the 2008 album Keep Telling Myself It’s Alright which fused modern rock with ’80s Goth and post-punk sounds. He has recently been working on a follow-up which will likely emerge in late 2020 or early 2021.
Looking back on Mer De Noms, Howerdel feels that it still holds up especially considering the limitations he was working with. “I basically recorded it by myself at home, and I went to a studio for four days,” recalls Howerdel. “Otherwise, I was in this little pottery room off of a garage that I made into a makeshift studio. Now it’s commonplace, but it was expensive [then] and I jumped through hoops to make it sound the way it did. I think it holds up 20 years later. Certainly looking back at pictures of everything – what a tornado we were inside of and how quickly this took off. It was crazy.”
Given all of the experience that Howerdel had accumulated as a guitar tech, he was ready for the touring grind, and he admits that that was by design. “I’ve never had that zero-sum mentality,” he says. “I’ve always wanted to experience everything and bring everything in from as many sources as I could for inspiration and wisdom. So I decided as a musician I was going to go work for bands and make a living doing that first and just learn from people’s mistakes, good and bad. That’s the way it went.”