For the first time ever, A Perfect Circle’s Billy Howerdel has found himself having trouble adjusting to life on the road—a place where he’s spent a good chunk of his adult life.
“We just pulled up to Toronto, Canada, and I just woke up on the bus,” says the affable guitarist, sounding completely Zen-like on a call from the Centre of the Universe. “I usually sleep well on the bus, but this is the first tour in 30 years that I’m not sleeping well. Normally it’s something that I look forward to—going on tour and being able to snuggle into that little cocoon on the bus—but it just hasn’t worked out that way.”
Rather than taking the Fifth, Howerdel is perfectly open about what might be troubling him. The 47-year-old became famous as a cofounder of A Perfect Circle, which was originally promoted as a side project of Tool’s Maynard James Keenan and then eventually exploded into something more. The alt-metal experimentalists roared out of nowhere with a 2000 debut, Mer de Noms, that eventually went platinum. Two follow-ups—Thirteenth Step (2003) and Emotive (2004)—would solidify the band’s status as hockey-arena headliners, which holds true today.
But on A Perfect Circle’s current tour, Howerdel and Keenan are discovering that keeping fans engaged isn’t always easy when you haven’t released new material since George Bush was getting ready to start his second term in the White House.
Making things even more of a challenge was that the group had hoped to release a new album this year, something that now won’t happen until at least 2018. An earlier run of shows in the spring went off big-time, with Howerdel and his bandmates playing to packed houses. This fall has been different.
So, after initially suggesting he’s not sure what’s been keeping him awake at night, Howerdel then offers: “Maybe it’s that I’ve got too much on my mind—like trying to finish this record on top of touring. Probably my mind is just racing too much. The shows haven’t been as well-attended as the spring, and that’s been a little bit of a head-scratcher for us. You can try and figure those things out, but that turns into an exercise in frustration.
“It’s for people in different parts of this organization—managers and booking agents and promoters—to worry about more than me,” he continues. “But I’d be lying to say that it didn’t matter to me—it’s nice when you go out and see a full room, and the spring was mostly like that. But then again, it’s only been a few shows, so maybe it’s just a little ego trip on my part.”
That the guitarist laughs self-deprecatingly at the ego-trip part of his assessment speaks volumes about his easygoing attitude toward rock stardom. Far from being self-absorbed and convinced of his own brilliance, he couldn’t come across as more down-to-earth, as willing to discuss his passion for cooking as he is to talk music.
As noted, it’s not like he isn’t used to seeing the world from a tour bus. Long before forming A Perfect Circle with Keenan—a former roommate—Howerdel already had a pretty good idea how to carve out a successful career in the music business.
His start came behind the scenes working as a guitar tech, first for bar bands, then eventually for megastars like Guns N’ Roses. Years on the back end would not only teach him plenty about being a professional but help him make countless contacts. Those would include well-respected musicians like drummer Josh Freese (Guns N’ Roses), bassist Paz Lenchantin (the Pixies), and Troy Van Leeuwen (Queens of the Stone Age), all of whom would play on Mer de Noms. Howerdel notes that he spent around eight years jumping from tour to tour with bands as a tech. But rather than partying at the end of the night, he was always thinking about the future.
“I really didn’t live anywhere,” Howerdel says. “I was always on the road with nothing but a credit card, a phone card, and life insurance. I was saving up money and writing songs to make APC happen. I put enough money away in the bank that I was able to basically finance the first record, and that was a scary thing. I could have not made it, and instead ended up broke and having to start all over.”
Howerdel says his expectations were low even though A Perfect Circle moved quickly from playing its first show at the Viper Room to appearing at the inaugural edition of Coachella. Initial shows were in small clubs that typically held 100 to 300 fans.
“Tool was a theatre band at that point, and Maynard’s name brought a lot of weight to A Perfect Circle, even though that didn’t translate to ticket sales,” the guitarist says.
Nonetheless, things began to take off in 2000 after A Perfect Circle found itself enlisted as the opening act on a Nine Inch Nails tour for The Fragile, then began to gain serious traction when shit-hot director David Fincher helmed the band’s video for “Judith”.
Flashforward nearly two decades, and a couple of sleepless tour-bus nights are doing nothing to make Howerdel regret the path that he continues to follow with A Perfect Circle.
“I was happy behind the scenes and always enjoyed it, but doing this was always the plan for me. When I was 17 or 18 and trying to figure out what I wanted to do, this was the trajectory. I didn’t really assign any amount of years to it, but I always thought from age 18 that I wanted to be a tech, move into being a production manager, move into being a musician, and then do acting, directing, and producing movies. That was my long-term 50-year plan. And it’s sort of taking that shape.”
A Perfect Circle plays the Pacific Coliseum next Thursday (November 30).