A Perfect Circle founders Billy Howerdel and Maynard James Keenan know how to catch their fans off guard. They did it when they announced earlier this year that the band would be touring for the first time in six years.
And they did it again on Oct. 17, with the surprise release of their new single “Doomed.” Even the press was kept out of the loop, except for a handful of interviewers who were all sworn to secrecy.
Why the shroud of mystery?
“You only have one chance to make a first impression,” explained guitarist Howerdel, who’s also the art-metal band’s primary composer and arranger. “It’s a big song, in a lot of ways, and we wanted it to have a lot of impact sonically. But I think the more you hear about a song, before you actually get to hear it, the more that waters it down.”
“Doomed” was made for both huge speakers as well as headphones that have really good bass response. It opens with big drums that get bigger as the song goes on, while Howerdel’s ambient guitar tones drift into the left channel and Tool frontman Keenan comes crashing in from the right with his characteristically urgent vocals.
Howerdel anticipates the band will release its new album in second quarter 2018. The as-yet-untitled recording will be the first album in nearly 15 years from the band, which also features James Iha on rhythm guitar and keyboards, Matt McJunkins on bass, and Jeff Friedl on drums. In addition to “Doom,” the album will include “Feathers” and “Hourglass,” both of which the band has begun playing live.
Work on the album is well under way, but for now, A Perfect Circle is stepping away for a 20-date fall tour, which includes a stop Nov. 17 at Petersen Events Center in Oakland.
So far, Keenan and Howerdel have been collaborating on the album mostly long distance, with producer Dave Sardy — whose credits include Helmet, LCD Soundsystem, and Nick Cave — taking on the role of Howerdel’s real-time sounding board.
“I’ve always sort of self-produced, but I knew this was going to be a bigger-sounding record, and I wanted to see what this would be like,” said the musician. “Dave’s got really strong opinions, so I have to pick my battles and see how compelling I can make my musical argument. He’ll sometimes have ideas that I didn’t have, and he’ll also interface between Maynard and I. Maynard’s not physically here a lot — he’ll track some things on his own and send them over — so it’s just nice having someone overseeing the whole process. I felt like I was able to dig in a little deeper on this record.”
Like Keenan’s other other band, Puscifer, A Perfect Circle initially was regarded by the press as a Tool side-project. That characterization overlooked the fact that A Perfect Circle is Howerdel’s brainchild.
“I have no complaint,” said the musician, who became a fan of Keenan’s when he first heard Tool. “Maynard from day one always gave me a lot of credit, and I feel appreciated. I mean, yeah, I’ve had some people come up and say that to me, like, ‘Oh you’re underrated” and this or that. And I just think, ‘Okay, whatever.’ Just as someone could say, ‘Oh you’re that band that sucks,’ or ‘You’re that band that’s great.’ You can’t get too wrapped up in anything like that.”
Howerdel — who’d also served as a tour guitar tech for Smashing Pumpkins, David Bowie and, yes, Tool — was working on songs of his own when Keenan offered to sing on them. That was in 1999. A year later, A Perfect Circle’s “Mer de Noms” album made rock history by debuting at No. 4, selling nearly 200,000 copies in its first week, and staying on the charts for one week short of a year.
Buoyed by the singles “Judith,” “Three Libras” and “The Hollow,” the album was one of the first to successfully mix grunge and metal elements with prog-rock passages that feature violins, tack piano, and xylophone. The band’s sophomore album, “Thirteenth Step,” climbed even higher up the charts to No. 2, and, like its predecessor, sold more than a million copies.
The band switched gears with 2004’s “eMOTIVe.” Released a year after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the album was largely composed of anti-war cover songs. The group didn’t tour on behalf of “eMOTIVe,” and with its contract with Virgin Records now fulfilled, went on the kind of hiatus that bands like to call indefinite, but usually are anything but.
A decade-plus later, Puscifer, Tool and Ashes Divide (Howedel’s other band) are still very much in action, but A Perfect Circle has moved to the front of the queue. And Howerdel is still amazed that the band has been able to pick up where it left off, playing arena-sized venues on the current tour.
“I’m still shocked,” he said. “I feel honored that so many people remember us.”
Bill Forman is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.