Circle of Stars

It sure sounds like a good band on paper: A slightly obsessive-compulsive songwriter named Billy with a shaved head and lots of famous musician pals. A singer (also bald) from a dark, foreboding, prog-metal band with a huge underground following that hasn't released a record in four years. A guitarist who was in another cult fave. A drummer who was the secret weapon on records for everybody from Indigo Girls to Paul Westerberg. And a bass player who doubles on violin and just happens to be attractive and female.

But A Perfect Circle is more organic than the sum of its parts suggests; the band formed by slow gravitational pull rather than some marketing exec's brainstorm. Songwriter-guitarist Billy Howerdel and singer Maynard James Keenan of Tool hooked up in 1992, but didn't start working together until 1996. Howerdel met bassist-violinist Paz Lenchantin a year later. Guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen, who was in criminally underrated atmospheric rockers Failure, joined the following year. And like clockwork, one year later, drummer Josh Freese (Devo, Vandals) replaced Primus' Tim Alexander. The group's clinically precise alt-metal debut, Mer de Noms, definitely sounds like it was written by a former guitar tech for Nine Inch Nails and the Smashing Pumpkins and the vocalist for Tool, yet the way Freese and Lenchantin navigate the sinewy grooves and shifting guitar dynamics liberates the sound.

APC is Howerdel's vision, but the obvious comparison is to Tool. The obvious shorthand description would be "Keenan's side project." However, the intense singer goes to great lengths to characterize APC as anything but a Tool offshoot, even disguising his presence in the band by wearing a long black wig.

During a recent interview, before the band left Los Angeles to open Nine Inch Nails' Fragility 2.0 tour, Keenan said emphatically, "Billy really is the main songwriter in this band. He writes all the music, he did all the producing, all the engineering. It's his band."

Howerdel himself offers a more balanced perspective: "Maynard being in Tool is a huge thing--anything that the guy's name is on is huge," he notes, crediting APC's 20 sold-out club shows last fall, before the album was even released, to Keenan's status. But Howerdel also notes that the radio success of APC's first single, "Judith," might have garnered some fans. "This album sold more than any Tool album did, in its first day and in its first week--that has to be due to something."

In fact, much of A Perfect Circle's success can be directly linked to the thirst for any new Tool-related material. For a while in the mid-1990s, it looked like the quartet's spooky, prog-meets-metal sound would inherit the Jane's Addiction throne, particularly after Tool stole the show at 1993's Lollapalooza. Rather than wanky, guitar-solo-dominated metal, Tool is more textured. The band had a platinum album with 1993's Undertow, and a multiplatinum smash with 1996's Aenima, but has since all but dropped from the radar after a legal wrangle with its label.

Yet a one-off show headlining the Coachella Music Festival last year proved Tool can still put asses in the seats. You still see a lot of black Tool T-shirts among the crowds at any major metal show from OzzFest to Marilyn Manson. The band connects to disenfranchised kids, mainly via enigmatic front man Keenan. But his lyrics aren't simply the raging-rat-in-a-cage type--he prides himself on encouraging his fans to think for themselves. He is also a natural, charismatic performer. At Coachella, Keenan engaged in some call and response with his audience: First he explained that the French word for yes is oui, and that the Spanish word is si. Then he had the crowd chant all three words in a row. Most of the crowd had no idea they were screaming, "Yes, we see!" He was wearing nothing but a Speedo and body paint at the time.

Still, as engaging as Keenan's other band is, APC's music encompasses a range of emotion beyond Tool's multiple shades of black. Keenan sings more than yells on Mer de Noms, and the band shifts in and out of quiet passages without sounding as if they're following a metronome. Another telling difference: Tool's last record was produced by Dave Bottrill, who's known for his work with Peter Gabriel and pretentious rockers King Crimson, whereas Mer de Noms was mostly recorded in Howerdel's garage. Intense and heavy--as expected--the disc also has a postpunk tension, thanks to the band's rhythmic interplay. Released in May, APC's debut sold a thundering 188,000 copies in its first week.

It's a long climb from Howerdel's beginnings as roadie for a crappy Guns N' Roses wanna-be. After he left that gig, Howerdel lived in about 10 different places all over Los Angeles; around 1991, he hooked up with ska-punk-funk-metal pioneers Fishbone. In several years of working for the group, he managed to avoid the dreaded "trombone catching" duty, which involved a horn thrown 30 feet from the stage. Howerdel is quick to indicate that even that assignment was not nearly as risky as his job with another long-time employer, Nine Inch Nails. "That was a war zone," he says.

In person, Howerdel comes across as an unlikely candidate to thrive amid NIN's theatrical gloom; he seems like a shy guy who'd rather read technical manuals on effects processors than drink absinthe with the leather pants crowd. But he remembers his NIN days fondly. Little wonder that Trent Reznor personally invited APC to open his band's recent tour.

Other people for whom Howerdel worked recognized something special in him as well. Fishbone bassist Norwood Fisher remembers Howerdel writing a lot of songs while he was working for the band. "They ended up becoming the Perfect Circle album," Fisher says. "I knew he was a genius before he even started writing those songs. He's out of his motherfucking mind!"

After leaving the Fishbone camp, Howerdel went to work for Tool and Guns N' Roses, among others. Meanwhile, he was still writing and recording his own music. When then-roommate Keenan heard what he was working on, he offered to sing on it. But Howerdel was writing with a female voice in mind, so he turned down Keenan.

"I didn't put a lot of weight into it," Howerdel explains. "It wasn't like this one day where he joined up; it was over a couple of conversations that it really sunk in."

Once Keenan became involved, however, things skyrocketed. His name alone meant a record deal was a slam-dunk. A bidding war ensued, and APC eventually signed a multi-album deal with Virgin, even though Tool's label, Volcano, had the right to match any offer.

A Perfect Circle is a record label's dream, only better, since its members came together on their own. Lenchantin is a former piano teacher who has never played in a rock band, but both Keenan and Howerdel claim she's the best pure musician in the group. Contrast that with Freese's and Van Leeuwen's poise and experience--the kind of X-factors that give APC a wide musical base. And Keenan's involvement helped get the attention of record labels, but his star power is also the element that makes APC more than the studio obsession of a music freak.

As for the music freak himself, Howerdel admits to obsessive-compulsive tendencies--a trait that meshed well with his first career, but that sometimes interferes with his creative side. "There's a very fine line between tweaking something forever, and releasing something that you're really proud of that you efficiently got done," he says. "You use your right and left brain at the same time. It's nerve-racking. There's nothing I regret on the record. There are only two or three things that I hoped I could add, but they're very small--they're not important."

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David Simutis