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A Perfect Circle: Another Round for Billy Howerdel and James Iha

James Iha rocking out on his doublecut Epiphone ET-270 during APC's 2011 Lollapalooza set at Grant Park inside Chicago, IL.
Photo by John Davisson / Frank White Photo Agency.

The supergroup guitarists open up about the reunion, their new recording, and revamping their road rigs.

After a hiatus that lasted almost as long as the band had been in existence, A Perfect Circle reunited in 2010. Now the band is offering its first releases in nearly a decade: Three Sixty, a greatest hits collection featuring one new song, “By and Down,” and A Perfect Circle Live: Featuring Stone and Echo, a limited-edition box set that includes Stone and Echo, a full-length live DVD and audio CD from the band’s 2011 show at the Red Rocks Amphitheater in Colorado. There’s also a live three-CD set featuring the band’s three albums—Mer de Noms, Thirteenth Step, and eMOTIVe—performed in their entirety on three separate nights during the 2010 tour.

If a new release consisting primarily of old material has you scratching your head, APC founder and guitarist Billy Howerdel explains: “Well, we didn’t get together to write new songs. For full transparency, I’m at the mercy of our singer’s schedule. When Maynard [James Keenan, also the lead singer for Tool] is ready to go, I’m ready to go.”

Such bluntness may seem at odds with the usual music business spin, but Howerdel has always been wary of showbiz shtick. “I don't have that drive and sales gene in me at all,” he admits. “I’d probably talk you out of the band rather than into it. It’s funny, because I do the majority of press for the band, so go figure.”

“I wasn’t in it for girls or drugs or any of the things that a lot of people get caught up in rock ’n’ roll for. It was truly for the music.” —Billy Howerdel

The introverted Howerdel entered the music business as a guitar tech, working with the likes of Guns N’ Roses, Smashing Pumpkins, and Tool. “I wanted to be in a band but was too shy to put one together,” he says. “With my personality, it was a way of entering the music business through the backdoor. I wasn’t in it for girls or drugs or any of the things that a lot of people get caught up in rock ’n’ roll for. It was truly for the music.”

On the road, Howerdel would set up his portable studio after the rest of the crew was asleep, writing and recording in hotel rooms and on the bus. He saved money and moved to L.A., where fate intervened. “I wasn’t good at networking, but I just happened to move in with Maynard,” he recalls. After hearing the songs through the bedroom walls, Keenan offered to collaborate, and A Perfect Circle was born. Howerdel financed the first APC record with $20,000 he’d saved.

Another key connection occurred when APC recruited former Smashing Pumpkin James Iha to replace guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen, who had joined Queens of the Stone Age. Iha served with the band until their 2004 hiatus, and he returns in the current lineup.

What made you guys decide to regroup?
Billy Howerdel: Maynard just had a hole in his schedule. He had some ideas up his sleeve of doing this all-encompassing tour of select Western U.S. cities, performing the first three albums on three different nights.

James Iha: Billy and Maynard are both busy guys. It’s just a matter of them freeing up enough time to record or do a tour. By 2008 or 2009, enough time had gone by that they both felt motivated to put the band back together and see what it sounded like.

What was it like revisiting the music after so long?
Howerdel: I’m trying not to have demo ears—where you can only hear the original [versions of the songs] and never move past it—but, looking back, I don’t have any regrets. I’ve always had the time to do what I wanted to do to the songs. You never really know what you could redo. You can keep changing things forever—but not necessarily for the better.

Was it hard to relearn the material after being away from it for so many years?
Iha: Yeah, some of the playing is challenging. You can’t really write it down—you have to just memorize it and know it.

Are you playing the original parts live or coming up with new ones?
Iha: Mostly staying true to the record. eMOTIVe was never played live—it was more of a studio record than the first two—so we definitely took liberties with that when we played it live. There’s a lot of shit going on, so it’s like, “What are the best parts to choose for a live performance?”

Howerdel: We spent a lot of time and energy figuring out how these things would come off live. So we had to redo it the way we probably would have recorded it in the first place if we’d thought we were going to tour with it.

Howerdel playing piano during APC's show at the Showbox at the Market in Seattle, WA, on November 12th, 2010. Photo by Jenny Jimenez

How did you go about writing the new song, “By and Down”?
Howerdel: I was in my studio with my 3-year-old son. I plucked around on the keyboard with him and made up some funny songs. As he was pounding on the low keys with his fist, I just came up with the riff for “By and Down.” I thought, “This sounds interesting.” I recorded it on my phone, and then put him in front of the TV or something so I could start working on the song right away.

Iha: We played it for a long time before it got recorded. That almost never happens in APC.

Did road-testing it lead to changes for the studio recording?
Howerdel: The feel of the breakdown drum part got a little dynamic’d up, but that’s really it. It’s nice to know that our instincts were pretty close to what the final song became.

What is the usual APC writing process?
Howerdel: I write the music and Maynard does the lyrics and the melodies.

James, are you involved in writing?

Iha: I haven’t been. When the band first called me, the second record was already done. I played on eMOTIVe, the record after that, but that’s been it.

APC’s music is quite involved—it can’t be easy to fit melodies over it. Does Maynard have any difficulty working with your music?

Billy Howerdel's Gear

Gibson 1960 Les Paul Classic reissue

Amps and Cabinets
Dave Friedman-modded 1978 100-watt Marshall Super Lead
Marshall 1960AV 4x12 with Celestion Vintage 30s
Marshall 1960AV 4x12 with 25-watt Celestion Greenbacks

Fractal Audio Axe-Fx II

Strings and Picks
Ernie Ball strings (.013, .017, .020P, .032, .044, .056), Dunlop 1.0 mm picks, Mogami cables

James Iha's Gear

Late-’80s/early-’90s Gibson Les Paul Custom
Early-’80s “grayburst” Gibson Les Paul Custom

Amps and Cabinets
Matrix GT1000FX power amp
VHT 4x12 cab with 25-watt Celestion Greenbacks

Fractal Audio Axe-Fx II

Strings and Picks
Ernie Ball strings (.013, .017, .020P, .032, .044, .056), Dunlop 1.0 mm picks, Mogami cables

Howerdel: Listen to Tool—it’s insanely complicated prog rock! I’m still amazed by Maynard. How does he fit “The Hollow” over “The Hollow”? Even though it’s kind of a structured song, it’s still very complicated. Any other singer would say, “Take out that busy guitar part.” He feeds off it and somehow makes it work. He has this great sense of rhythm, the way he fits things together.

Billy, you also have another project—Ashes Divide—and James, you recently released another solo album, Look to the Sky.Are you guys totally invested in APC?
Howerdel: I’m totally invested in both. The way you have to approach things being a singer in a band, and the way you have to approach them as guitar player/songwriter, are very different. It’s much easier with APC in a way. What it takes physically to be a singer is not to be underestimated. It takes every single calorie you have to burn to put on a performance if you’re doing more intense music. When I’m singing with Ashes, I have nothing left. I’m completely spent.

Can you give us a rundown of your gear?
Iha: Oh god, I’m terrible at this shit.

Howerdel: I was the guitar tech on a Nine Inch Nails tour and one of the guitars that lasted the longest—a cinnaburst 1960 reissue Les Paul—is my main guitar now. It got broken all of the time—all the guitars did. They had headstocks off, necks off, just shattered. I fixed this one so many times, and then one day it got thrown into the crowd and somebody in the audience ripped the headstock off. It was sitting headless for a while. I had trunks and trunks of guitars, probably 50 or 60 of them that I traveled with and tried to fix to get ready for a show today, tomorrow, two weeks from now. A similar cinnaburst guitar got broken, and I kept that headstock and tried to marry the two. It got put back on, but at sort of the wrong angle—because, of course, the wood type didn’t match. It’s a little less angled than normal, but it’s the best-sounding and best-playing guitar I’ve ever used. It was a happy accident. I talked with Gibson several years ago about doing a signature model with the same specs. Even if it’s not for mass production, I just want some duplicates in case something ever happens to it.

Iha: My gear is similar to Billy’s. I play Gibson Les Paul Customs. We changed out the pickups, but I don’t remember the name of the pickups. I’m into gear, but at the same time, I’m not into gear. [Ed. note: According to APC’s techs, both guitarists use Tom Anderson pickups.]

Did you update your rig for the album tours?
Iha: We started using new effects. We’re both using Fractal Axe-FX IIs. We wanted to get some of the original sounds back, but also see if we could make things bigger, crazier, or more exaggerated than the original effects.

Howerdel: I turned on my rig with all the patches for APC, and it just didn’t work. Even in 2004, my stuff was kind of old and not working correctly. So I just scrapped it all and started from scratch. I’ve got my Fractal, but I also kept an older box that’s barely working: the Lexicon MPX G2. I still haven’t heard anything that sounds quite as good, but it’s just so unreliable.

Howerdel leaving it out all onstage during A Perfect Circle's show at the Showbox at the Market in Seattle, WA, on November 12th, 2010. Photo by Jenny Jimenez

Was it time-consuming to program the Fractal units?
Howerdel: Trying to make all of the guitar sounds for 40 songs was just crazy. The APC sounds are really complex. Between what I’m trigerring in MIDI and how controllers work, it took a lot of time—and then I had to redo it again when the new Fractal came out! [Laughs.]

Iha: Yeah, it’s kind of ridiculous, but that’s what happens when you try to get nuanced things that don’t sound like they’re straight out of the box. You really have to sit there with an amp, a laptop, and your guitar, and just tweak shit for a really long time.

Do you have a backup in case the Fractals go down?
Howerdel: There’s a backup unit right under it—just switch the cables and go. It would be back up and running in seconds.

Billy, has your experience as a tech changed the way you look at gear. For instance, is reliability as important as tone?
Howerdel: I definitely worry about the reliability factor. It comes down to budget also. Like, do you want to have an 18-space rack full of unique things? What if it goes down? My rack used to have 130 connections. Now it has five, and there’s very little compromise, if any. The new Fractal is really great, and it does most everything. The thing it doesn’t do so well is feedback. I do a lot of feedback stuff with APC, where I stand in certain spots to get the guitar to squeal. It’s tough to get the power amp to react that way.

YouTube It

“Weak and Powerless,” from APC’s second release, Thirteenth Step, was the band’s highest-charting single. Before embarking on their comeback tour, APC performed the hit on Jimmy Kimmel Live!

Do you also use the Fractals for amp modeling?
Howerdel: The Fractal is mostly just for effects. I use the same Marshall amp I’ve always had, a 1978 Super Lead 100 with a modified preamp by Dave Friedman. I came to him with this other amp that I liked the sound of, and we used that as the preamp. I have started using the Fractal for clean sounds, though. I liked the clean sound on the Marshall, but it was definitely hard to tailor, so I just wound up using the Fractal’s Fender clean sounds. There’s one amp I can't get it to simulate: my Gibson. That thing is really cool. I’ve found other cool sounds in the Fractal, but that amp is just like a pirate’s guitar sound. It's the most aggressive thing. I mostly use that for Ashes Divide.

Billy, what effect are you using on that intervallic figure in the verse of “Hollow”?
Howerdel: The effect on that arpeggio thing? It was GRM Tools, a TDM plug-in for Pro Tools. I recorded it with four different settings and put them all together in four different passes. That riff evolves over time. Trying to duplicate that live has always been tricky. I used a bunch of things in the Fractal to simulate it. There’s a filter I’m sweeping, a ring mod, and a delay with an Octavia pedal in front.

Billy, was it hard make the transition from tech to performer?
Howerdel: We all have dreams, and we go for them. But you have to be realistic, too. If it doesn’t work, then you’ve got to have plan B. Plan B for me was being a tech. I really enjoyed it. I made a good living. I liked being around the circus of music. If having a band hadn’t worked out, I probably would have been happy. But in hindsight, if I could go back to age 19 again, I would go right into being in a band.