The last time A Perfect Circle released a new album was all the way back in November 2004. It was a completely different era. George W. Bush was President. Donald Trump had just aired his first season of The Apprentice. Most of the cast of Stranger Things were literal infants. And the Boston Red Sox had just won their first World Series in 86 years. Fast-forward to 2018, and the reasons that Tool singer Maynard James Keenan decided to collaborate once again with guitarist Billy Howerdel for a new project under that banner remains pretty much the same as they were back then. He had an opening in his eye-popping, packed schedule, nothing was moving forward in Tool, so why the hell not?
After such a long break between albums, you’d be justified in wondering if the pair, along with Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha, bassist Matt McJunkins, and drummer Jeff Friedl, had anything new and compelling to say, and if they could find an interesting way to say it on their new record Eat The Elephant. I’m glad to report that they do, and they did.
Eat The Elephant is a thought-provoking meditation on this last year in the circus sideshow, Trump-led America we’ve all been white-knuckling through, and perhaps more interestingly, on the culture that fostered his rise. There’s not a lot of optimism to be found, but you already got that sense just by reading through a track list of songs titled things like “Disillusioned,” “The Doomed,” and “The Contrarian” for instance. “TalkTalk” is particularly scathing, upbraiding the Christian right and it’s knee-jerk response to any mass shooting in America with a set of “thoughts and prayers,” and little beyond that.
On a sonic level, Eat The Elephant definitely sounds like an A Perfect Circle record; dark, savage, and melodic. It leans a little more piano-heavy than some of the band’s prior projects — the final track “Get The Lead Out” is a particularly-inspired, doom-laden ballad — but that only gives Maynard more room to step out front and stretch his legendary voice with a supreme authority. Whatever the band, whatever the project, however long it takes to get there, as a singer, Maynard James Keenan remains one of the best and most versatile lead singers on the planet.
I recently had the chance to speak with Maynard about the creation of Eat The Elephant, where he derives some of his best creative ideas, and why concerts are best experienced through your own eyes instead of a cell phone screen.
I’m not used to talking to musicians this early in the morning. Are you much of an early riser?
I’m usually up around 6:30, or 7 AM.
Kudos. You probably more get done today than I do.
I don’t know what you get done…so, sure!
Let’s just get into it and talk about this new Perfect Circle album Eat The Elephant. 14 years is a pretty long gap between records. How did you come to start working with Billy Howerdel again?
It really comes down to timing. He had a few things kicking around. I was just coming off of the Puscifer album, Money Shot. The other guys weren’t ready in Tool, so it just seemed like the right timing. I just called him up to see if he was up for doing something, and he was ready.
You obviously work in a lot of different groups, can you kind of describe the process of making music is like with Billy?
Well, this time around it was a little different than it has been in past times. Digital technology has caught up with us, so as far as recording we were able to share many of the files from long distances… to not have to spend money on an expensive studio and be in there even when you’re not inspired to do something, but you’re still paying for the space. You know?
Just that added benefit of finding your way when you feel like finding your way. It was really beneficial on this, and from a distance, so I get a good night’s sleep in my own bed, wake up, go to our Puscifer studio and do some vocals and get them to him right away. And him getting me what he did the night before at Dave [Sardy’s] place. It was nice. It almost felt like, “Wait a minute, shouldn’t that have been harder?”
How long was that process going on?
I would say within a year. We said, ‘Okay, first take the blue pill.’ And it took a year.
How do you communicate musically or sonically with what he’s doing or what he’s sending you and how you interact with it as a lyricist? Did you get much into telling him, ‘I’m looking for sort darker tones,’ or maybe ‘Put more piano on this?’
It always coming back to some of my previous art education background, less is more, is the cornerstone. If you can say it in less colors and in less lines, and it’s still accurate, leave it right there. When you start adding things, it becomes more complicated. So that would be my only shift for him. I would make suggestions in terms of the melodies. ‘Let’s try it in a different time signature. Let’s try it in a different key at a different tempo just to see what it unlocks in order to really truly hear that, break it down to its basics.’ Eliminate all the extra sounds and soundscapes and patches around it just to hear at its core, which one is gonna get right in the pocket.
What were some themes that you were exploring lyrically, things you were writing about, things that were on your mind as you were kind of crafting the lyrics for this new record?
You start with introspection and look outward a little bit to see how this piece fits in the whole. That’s always kind of been a starting point. Accountability is definitely a word I would use. Entitlement would be another. Just basic broad sweeps that come with where you’re at, where you’ve been, what do you see. There are stages of your life, I’m sure if you’ve had kids, you read any of those children’s books, and they all disagree on whether or not the kids should have sushi, but there are some definite things that a lot of those books end up speaking of in terms of the progression of that child from birth to crawling to barely standing to walking to speaking. There’s a process and you could probably attach specific words to those processes. And it’s the same with this society and a culture and somebody speaking to that culture from their particular point of view. I think as a writer, you kind of have to keep that in mind. What color glasses are you looking through to make your commentary? If you can be self-aware enough for that, then at least there will be some grounding.
When you’re writing a piece of music, or lyrics, are you conscious of the audience you’re speaking to and what they might glean from it?
You can’t even worry about it. The answer is no.
Do you ever write outside of a musical context? Do you keep journals, poems?
I keep photos, I keep images. I take photos, I don’t draw pictures much. I keep videos, I watch a lot of great films and great television for the stories. I also watch a lot of shit, but within the shit there’s always a fucking peanut, so you gotta look at it. Somebody sat down and wrote that story. What’s the core of the story? Even if it’s a shit awful show, there’s still some kind of writing class 101 structure to what they did and why are you watching this? What’s in it that would be the reason? And every now and then I’ll wade through six episodes of absolute crap and there’s one line. You go, ‘That’s the line right there.’ That’s the core of that story, the story that they’re trying to tell. They accidentally said the line that summed it up. So that process that’s like an exercise for me to find the gem, find the peanut in the shit.
What’s some shit you’ve been wading through recently that maybe you’ve gleaned a couple of peanuts out of?
Wow, now I have to figure how to say this without insulting the people in the production and the actors in the show. I don’t know. I can’t say. That would be rude.
Fair enough. I respect it.
Can you talk about how working in wine, or how Brazilian jujitsu perhaps feeds into what you create musically?
If you get into Brazilian jujitsu and you don’t understand the word, humility, you might want to quit now because that’s what’s gonna happen, you’re gonna be humiliated. Right when you think everything’s fine, there’s always gonna be somebody ready to correct that perspective.
Kick your face in?
Yeah, choke you out and draw dicks on your forehead.
How about the process of making wine?
Well, with jujitsu, it’s immediate. You’re in a form of combat. It’s like chess. It’s all very immediate. And one mistake, two mistakes, three mistakes, now you’re four moves behind and you’re about to get checkmated by a superior player. With wine, it’s much longer strokes. You have to think way out five years ahead, 10 years ahead, and you’re taking steps that take patience and you are working trying to operate within Mother Nature, who is superior. Like jujitsu, you might be rolling with people who are on the same level as you. With winemaking you are rolling with Mother Nature and she is beyond black belt, and she’s not even aware that she’s competing against you, doesn’t care. So the long-term decisions and the adherence to making the right choices, not the short terms payoffs, that’s very, very, very, very important in winemaking and grape growing.
You talk about Mother Nature, and that’s beyond black belt, are you someone who enjoys being out of control sometimes?
Yeah. In order to be adaptable to the chaos, you have to be present and aware and conscious, so you kind of have to be in it. And that is part of life, embracing all the moments rather than cruising through some of them thinking about the ones coming.
Getting back to the record, I was really pleasantly surprised how much it sounded like A Perfect Circle record. The character was there, but it also didn’t feel like you were trying to do what you were doing 14, 15, 17 years ago with the first three albums.
I think it’s just time and experience. We’re not going to be able to recreate that and we would be sad fuckers if we did. Let 15 years ago be 15 years ago. I mean, there’s a lot of bands that come along now, they’ll latch on to a particular song from a band 30 years ago and create their entire band’s identity around that sound and that song. And if it’s accurate and compelling, great. But that’s somebody else being inspired by something that came before. For a band that has received their AARP card, and you’re trying to relive your past that’s just fucking pathetic. Don’t do that.
How is the way that you approach A Perfect Circle music different from the way you approach projects with your other bands? Is there a mindset, or switch that gets flipped? Like, ‘This is what I’m doing with this band,’ versus, ‘This is what I’m doing with that band?’
If you’ve read my interviews over the years, any of them, just pick five, did I say the exact same thing in every interview or would the interview change based on the questions and the conversations I was having with the journalist?
I’d imagine they would change.
There you have it.
I’ve seen you live in multiple configurations with different bands through the years, and I know that you don’t like the idea of fans filming your shows. Are you at all interested in taking it to the Jack White level and having people lock them up in pouches?
You try your best to make a policy of courtesy with people around you especially nowadays. Especially with someone like Dave Chappelle, this is your art. You’re gonna sell this thing. This is what you are gonna make your living on, and for you to bootleg it and put it online undermines his ability to make a living on his art. It’s proprietary, intellectual property. So there’s that element in the past, with the bootlegs and what not. But now, with the way phone are, they’re just annoying. And the more you’re tapped into that thing in front of you, the less you’re actually tapped into the experience around you. I’m a strong believer, supporter, advocate of the aural tradition and there’s got to be better ways. We try to figure out some way, but I think at some point people are just entitled and they just want what they want. They don’t give a fuck about the people around them. And so, yeah, we have to go the way of Jack White and start putting shit in pouches.
I’ve heard from a lot of my colleagues who have gone to his shows and they say it’s some of the best shows they’ve ever seen just because people are present. They’re watching the gig.
Well, initially, our shows were not pleasant because you had security guys with flashlights in your face trying to get the guy behind you to turn his fucking phone off and put it down. So now, they’re as annoying as the phones because people just can’t self-regulate. They can’t just be fucking cool and put the fucking thing away. We were going to implement a plan at one point and the show came out. Everybody pull your fucking phones out, take your photos, but that’s it.
That would’ve been amazing.
Everybody pull out, do it, get it over with. Now, put them away. If we see them out, you’re out, you’re leaving. But there’s still gonna be the element of the police with the flashlights in your face if there’s that one kid who just can’t fucking hold his liquor and is just being a dick. So, I guess the bags, if we do that, then that eliminates the possibility of having that moment where we allow people to take the phones out. I mean, if people would just fucking be courteous. We’ve lost that element of courtesy. Just watching the last election, the debates, I’m not a fan of George Bush Senior, at all, but if you go back and watch the debates, there’s courteous discourse. And then you watch this last one, and it’s like this is just awful. This is entitlement run rampant.
And it’s a sideshow too.
This is not taking the opportunity to take shots at Trump. This is me talking about a society, our culture. This is how we are now. We don’t care. We are discourteous to each other. We can’t just be civil and be courteous and go, ‘The rules in this building are this. I will adhere to them because there’s probably an experience that we’re trying to share here that you’ll miss if you’re not paying attention to the whole picture of what’s happening.’
I think you hit something there. I mean, it’s easy to point to Trump and say that’s the problem, but what’s the culture that bred that? How did he get there? And is that a reflection of us?
Yeah, so here we are. And so, there’s a culture of Snapchat and snapshot fucking selfie culture that’s just fucking gross. It’s so narcissistic, and it’s so self-centric. And it’s a dark part of our development as a globe, not just as a nation, just a weird, strange, narcissistic thing that’s a loop. So, I don’t know, to actually create a space where no, you can’t do that here. We’re trying to just give you the respect of a different experience initially anyway. And then that added rule is meant to encourage that experience to help you. And we’ve had so many people just like you said kind of go, ‘That was the best fucking thing. That Puscifer show was great because you made sure we didn’t have our phones out and we actually enjoyed the show more.’
Then it gets into this whole weird thing where, did the experience even happen if it’s not acknowledged by a thousand people on Facebook or Twitter?
Yeah, and honestly, it did, and you missed it.
Do you go to many shows just as a spectator?
A few just because it has to be somebody that I really want to see. Not as many as I’d like just because of the course of the timing of the winery, everything, when I come off the road the last thing I want to do is go back to a venue.
Who are some people you’ve seen lately that really impressed you?
Olivia Neutron John is great. I saw Roger Waters’ The Wall. Yeah, I don’t know. It’s been a while.
Why do you personally prefer to sing from the shadows?
I don’t prefer to sing from the shadows. I prefer to sing behind the back line and the drums. It’s an audio issue. It’s a separation issue. It’s a technical issue. And quibbling over 10 feet really annoys the shit out of me.
I think it’s enigmatic. It’s something different.
It’s not meant to be. It’s meant to be technical. It’s meant to be the microphone is not in front of the drums and in front of the guitar cabinets. It’s next to or behind them, so that the sound in the mic is separated enough for the front of house man to do a better mix.
That’s fascinating. I never would’ve considered that. I mean, I’m not a performer, but that makes total sense.
I don’t need to dance around in front of you at the front of the stage. I don’t need it. Some people need it. God bless them.
A lot of people need it.
David Lee Roth probably needs it.
Eat The Elephant is out on April 20 on BMG. Pre-order it here.