Billy Howerdel started out behind the scenes in the music business, doing guitar tech work for everyone from Nine Inch Nails to Guns ‘N’ Roses over the years. He stepped into the spotlight in 1999 with A Perfect Circle, a band he founded with Maynard James Keenan of Tool. Eight years and two platinum albums later (three, if you count the remix CD), APC is on indefinite hiatus and Billy has returned with Ashes Divide, a new band with a new album, Keep Telling Myself It’s Alright. As chief songwriter, producer and vocalist for Ashes Divide, Billy’s both the brains and the brawn of the project. “The Stone,” the first single off Ashes Divide’s debut album, hit radio in late January to critical acclaim. Keep Telling Myself It’s Alright drops April 8, 2008.
We go back a little ways with Billy from the APC days, back when Skwerl and I were wee little fanboys running a fansite for APC. Well, actually, I didn’t run shit- I just wrote things down. But they were good years, and it was fun to play catch-up and take a long look back at the path of fallen dominoes- as well as the road ahead.
Antiquiet: You were in a unique situation with A Perfect Circle, having a built-in fanbase from the get-go with the Maynard freaks and Tool fans. What can people expect from Ashes Divide?
Billy Howerdel: There was built-in fanbase for Tool and it was crazy at first, but we were also playing these tiny clubs and not necessarily selling them out. The internet wasn’t as big as it was, but I remember playing like 300 seat clubs and not selling every ticket. I knew that it was something we had to work for and build up. I knew it then, and I certainly know it now. And I know there’s a lot of work to do to get the word out. I’ve got a lot to do. There is some fanbase there now; there’s been a lot of ultracool responses to the stuff, at least on MySpace. But it all takes hard work.
I think from APC with Maynard, people got something a little different from what they were expecting. And with this, I don’t know if this falls that far from the APC tree. The biggest difference is that it’s gonna be me singing, and that’s sure gonna be offensive to a lot of Maynard fanatics. But it’s however you view it… I literally set out to do something different in the beginning, then I realized, what am I doing? It’s never going to be true if I do it that way. Even if it’s something I love. I mean, I’m super into The Postal Service, but if I try and make a Postal Service record on my first step out and I still have all this inside me, it’s not gonna be genuine. I plan in the future on doing that, but for right now, I really just went back to doing what came naturally, what came from an honest place.
Antiquiet: Approaching the songwriting process for this new project, did you have a particular direction in mind?
Billy Howerdel: I set out to do a few things, and one of the biggest things was to have it maybe not so ominous sounding. I kind of got away from it, some of it is pretty heavy. It’s not Slayer, but it’s not the Beach Boys. I was thinking that it would be really interesting to write everything in major key. There’s a couple things that made it on the record in that way, and I started to think about pulling them off, just to have this all be the same thing, then you just start second guessing all this shit…. it’s really nice to have that break in the record… there’s a couple breaks that are put in the right spot. I did something unique in this record in that I wrote to the sequence. I had a bunch of songs that were going to make it as they were, then I started writing some songs to fit the gaps. Even though there were skeletons or wire frames of them, I was like ok, “Ritual” is gonna be like this because I really want it to fit between these songs. I didn’t want this record to have any filler, no segues, every song is as strong as the one next to it. For me, every song is that way, but obviously that’s a subjective point of view. I feel really good that I got that down. It took me forever to do it, because I was trying to figure out myself as a singer and what this band was gonna be. It wasn’t just like writing a new record with an intact thing. So once I figured out that formula it started to come together quickly. But honestly, it was a struggle and it wasn’t easy to do.
What I set out to do was write faster songs. I really wanted to write faster tempos than I did with APC. If for no other reason than to just try and do something different. Cause I would never approach “Enemies” at 165 beats per minute, you know?
Antiquiet: How did the songwriting differ, knowing that you wouldn’t be showing it to someone else for their input or to add their parts?
Billy Howerdel: Back then, if it was Maynard, there were some things that I wouldn’t present to him. Things he probably wouldn’t be into doing. Hearing them even in their scratch form, I kind of knew what to hand him and what not to. I think on the first Perfect Circle record I handed him thirteen songs and he sang on twelve of them. I think it was just a matter of time for the next one. Where he wanted to go and where I wanted to go differed a little bit on Thirteenth Step, and we came together eventually. At the end of the day we both got exactly what we wanted, but it just took longer to do it. With this, it sounds easier, getting to do whatever you want, but it’s really tough not having a collaborator or someone you trust to bounce ideas off of. It’s certainly more than twice the work.
Antiquiet: Endless second guessing is a progress killer.
Billy Howerdel: Right, exactly, and that’s where Danny Lohner comes in. I brought him in about halfway through the process, when I had some things that were done and some things that really weren’t, and he really pushed me to go where I otherwise wouldn’t have gone. There’s a song called “Defamed” which at the time he was really into, and really pushed me to put a real chorus into it. He was always on me, like “God, you’re so weird man, all you need is a verse and a chorus and a verse and a chorus, why do you need all these extra sections?” He’s always trying to get me to simplify. But at the end of the day we always end up seeing eye to eye.
Antiquiet: I heard Josh Freese got involved as well.
Billy Howerdel: Yeah, he played drums on the whole record. My friend Dean Sainz who’s in a band called Dead Ponies played drums on one of the songs, but other than that it’s all Josh.
Antiquiet: Was anyone else involved?
Billy Howerdel: Devo, Maynard’s son, played cello on a track.
Antiquiet: I remember talking to you in the lobby of the Galaxy theater in LA before one of the first Perfect Circle shows, back in ’99 when you guys were just getting off the ground. You seemed so energized and optimistic at the time, even before the songs had fully evolved into what they became on the first record. Reflecting on that, almost ten years later, is there a similarity in how you feel about this new project?
Billy Howerdel: It’s funny, I remember that day. We were actually interviewing management. It was such an early time in it all. It sort of feels the same. I mean there were things that got heavier with APC as time went on… I mean, as things get bigger, things get more complicated. Things certainly got busy now and over the top frantic. I don’t know how I’m gonna pull it off. I was just talking to someone this morning about it, like, “how the fuck am I gonna get this all together in time?” But there’s that same whirlwind of press and getting a band started, it feels very similar. ‘Cause I don’t even have a band yet. At least I had that, then. But the record’s done, and the artwork’s pretty much done, we just shot the video and that’ll be done in a few days, so it’s kind of coming together. I’m going on a press tour next week, going on radio stations early morning shows where I have to wake up and play acoustic at fuckin 7 o’clock.
Antiquiet: Any full-scale touring plans yet?
Billy Howerdel: Yeah, right now we’re looking at May 7th. That could change, but right now I’m being told it’s May 7th in Florida. I’ll probably ask to go open up for someone in LA somewhere… you know, go to the Echo and see if I can open for whoever’s playing that night.
Antiquiet: What are your thoughts on the future of the recording industry, given the tectonic shifts in technology?
Billy Howerdel: I start thinking about it, and you know, at least right now I’ve just got too much other stuff going on right now to try and reinvent the wheel or think that I’m a record company. If APC was putting out a record today, we could maybe do it ourselves. But I know Maynard’s more into that than I am, seeing as how he put Puscifer out by himself. I think just being a new entity is going to be an uphill battle. I have good friends who have no idea what Ashes Divide is. It’s been a few months now that we’ve been trying to make this machine turn, and it’s gonna take a lot of work. So I think a record company still has a valid place in developing an artist, if they’re interested. And from what I hear, they’re usually not interested or have bad intentions. And I’m not trying to kiss their ass, but I think Island has been kick-ass as far as the attention they’ve paid. I feel like they’re really behind this and I’ve seen them working hard to make this happen rather than just seeing if the shit sticks to the wall. I’ve heard a lot of people complain the other way about record companies though, and I have no doubt that they’re completely valid complaints. And who knows? Things could change. But as of right now it feels like there’s a lot of love there and a lot of interest in seeing where this thing goes.
Antiquiet: I’ve good heard things about Island, but I can’t say as much for Interscope. We did an interview with Josh from Queens Of The Stone Age, and he had some fire for Jimmy Iovine and Interscope.
Billy Howerdel: (laughs) Yeah, I actually read that article and was like, “Whoa, that’s bitey.” He’s not one to flower words anyway, but it’s true. People get fucked. You put everything you’ve got into something, and it just becomes this entire posturing and flexing thing. From a musician’s standpoint, it’s 100% completely and purely emotional. At least that’s where it starts, that’s where it should be. But then you get someone who’s completely financial and thinking with the opposite side of the brain. They might think that they’re doing it for the right reasons, but it usually comes down to money, unfortunately. The record industry model that’s out there is changing. Do you see it as opportunity, or destruction, the end of things?
There are definitely fingers to be pointed, but it’s the real world, and there’s real reasons why people do things.
Come back next week for part 2, where we discuss the future of A Perfect Circle, what Billy learned while working on the Guns ‘N’ Roses record, the influences that drove him through the making of each of his albums, and more.