Sometimes you find the music. Sometimes the music finds you. For Billy Howerdel, a career musician and founding member of A Perfect Circle, his latest venture came in the form of the sounds that shaped him.
Howerdel's debut solo outing, What Normal Was, is filled to bursting with synth laden ambiance, soaring vocals, ethereal guitars and mood piled upon mood, a wink and a nod to one of his musical loves, Pink Floyd, amongst countless others.
Howerdel sat down with Metal Injection for a deep dive into the new album (and why it ventured away from past project Ashes Divide), his past life as a touring and studio tech, including working with Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor, nightmare guitar-tech moments, the status of A Perfect Circle and a deep look into their seminal record Thirteenth Step, and much more!
I know this is a personal record for you and one that really channeled a lot of what you came up loving as a music fan. Initially this probably would have started as an Ashes Divide record, and maybe came across more as something that would have been the most solo outing of your career, if that makes sense?
Right. Yeah, I think there's a few factors. And yes, I started to make the second Ashes record and I knew it was going to be different, but it just didn't sit right with me to keep calling it Ashes. I don't know. I think the style of the music or the sound of this for me is more what I would always tend to write. And then, as I did A Perfect Circle and Ashes, I would flesh them out in a little heavier way with heavier guitars, because I do have that love of heavy music, too.
But the basis of even the A Perfect Circle songs, I think if I took those demos and flesh them out to their completion, it would fit comfortably on this record. And therefore I think there was a little bit of justification for me to say, you know what, I think this is time to just call it my name. I wasn't going to come up with another moniker or another solo project name, so there we go.
It's much different than an Ashes Divide record like Keep Telling Myself it's Alright. A complete 180 from that. There are songs on this new album that do lean towards the heavier spectrum, but there are lots of Pink Floyd, The Cure, Depeche Mode ambient type feelings. I'd guess it's what you came up listening to or what you would have been inspired by growing up.
Yeah, exactly. I've been talking about it enough. I'm terrible at sales, but this is probably a bad thing to say, but this is a record I couldn't have made until now. Like, just tech-wise I didn't know how to make a record like this ten years ago even. And I always wanted to. And it's like one of those things that's nice to dive back into being a kid and what sparked music in my heart from the beginning and try and just write the music that would impress my early teenage self. So this is kind of what I would want to listen to if it was available.
You mentioned tech, and it made me think about your past life teching for live acts and artists. What were some of the major takeaways you might have had from some of those events and times in your life? You had a chance to rub shoulders and absorb some of the major artists of our time.
Yeah, for sure. That's one thing I did want to get in behind the curtain for that reason. You know, I was starting to play guitar before my 17th birthday, and I really loved it. Within the first two years that's all I did. I had broken up with my high school sweetheart. It was all my fault, by the way, and just locked in my parents basement just playing guitar, writing music.
And honestly, I started losing my hair early. Like, I used to joke around about it when I was 16, but by the time I was 19, it was over. And in the 80s, if you didn't have long hair and a van you were done. You just weren't getting in a band. It's over [laughs]. Now it's kind of in vogue, luckily, and people have kind of loosened up to it. Maybe that had a little bit to do with it, too. I mean, who knows?
I wound up really enjoying the tech part of things, so I liked working in service to a show. Playing in a show, yes, but it wasn't my drive, really. I liked writing my songs for myself on my time off, but then being around this energy and yeah, as I've worked for bigger, bigger bands and learned what to do and what not to do, that was invaluable. I worked for Fishbone for years, so that was like family. And I made a lot of acquaintances and connections through them, including Maynard with Tool, because they were an opening band for Fishbone.
But then getting into like Nine Inch Nails. I really do credit Trent in particular as someone I've looked up to as a model of work ethic. Trent can understand the algorithm down to the deepest level of the synth he's programming. He's not just the brilliant musician that knows how to play, but is mystified, everything's mysterious that's going on. He has a very clear knowledge of these things.
And when I started working for him, the musical director, sound man or whatever you want to call it came to me in the first week, and he said, 'Now, look, you're Trent's guitar tech, and he doesn't expect anything out of you that he doesn't expect out of himself, and he expects a lot.' It's like, okay, point taken. But it was good. He was there to win and I was too. Just whatever you've been doing you're there to kind of succeed and get through the war of those shows. And so it was an invaluable lesson for me, for my own music, but also how to make things, how to be self-sufficient, how to learn how the gear ticks and other parts of that stuff.
The role of a guitar tech always seems to me to be a very nerve wracking thing. Were there ever any moments where everything went wrong during a gig? Like a complete nightmare scenario?
Yeah, I mean, God. The very first band I worked for, the very, very, very first band. Now I'm fresh out of high school by a week. I just turned 18. I can still remember. I handed this guy a guitar with the wrong string on it. Like I think it was supposed to be the A string and I put like the D string on and then I mean, he's like 'I don't know what the fuck's going on here.' Like, he just hands it back to me and I remember being mortified, like oh my God I'm fired.
And then also the first day of Fishbone, the very first day I showed up to do the gig. They were already on tour, they just fired their tech and they said, 'Oh by the way, the pedal board, somebody spilled a whole beer on it and it doesn't work.' And this is a custom Bradshaw switching system that's a one off. You can't go to the store and buy it. It's a custom thing made by Bob Bradshaw in L.A. So talk about nerve wracking. There was a strip bar next door. So I went next door and asked the girls if I could borrow a hair dryer. And I'm sitting there with circuit boards spread out all over the floor trying to do the rice trick and trying to get the show to work. So it was definitely a trial by fire.
Now that the album is ready and you have this tour coming up, does this feel like the direction you want to continue taking in terms of whether you want to consider it solo material or things away from A Perfect Circle? Do you see yourself making another type of Ashes Divide record or is this where you're finding yourself the most comfortable?
I don't know exactly. My heart's in this right now. Right when I got done with the record and started mixing it, I started writing songs right away because I didn't want to lose the momentum. And so I've got a good sketch of seven things I'd say that happened all in the month that the record was done. And usually I just let those things sit dormant for a bit and then revisit them later and see what comes about. But I don't like listening to them until I'm ready to put something down.
So yeah, they feel like a continuation of this record. They're almost a little more simplistic in their current form. But then again I'm thinking about what the next APC sound will be. And so those are considerations for later down the road. But yeah, I just kind of jot down ideas. So thinking about solo records, I mean, that's the thing. You can kind of do whatever you want.
Looking at APC and now the juggling of everything must be quite intense. If you think of Maynard with Tool and Puscifer, yourself with this solo project, James with The Smashing Pumpkins, on and on. There's a lot of irons in the fire, so to speak. It must take delegating and organizing to make that work for a new APC album or tour or whatever you'd consider.
Yeah, for sure. It comes down for me to see, Okay, when is the window in Maynard's schedule? He plans out far. He has to be organized, he's got three bands and he's got a winery and like a food empire he started. He's a busy guy and I'm there when he's ready, basically, if it's not interfering with this tour or this album cycle. You know, we'll get there. But he's out with Puscifer right now. They were just next to us in rehearsal. We're going to see him in a few days. So he's out working hard with that. He's a busy bee.
I'm curious if there have been any preliminary talks on what you'd like to see with new APC material? Whether it be in the same line as Eat the Elephant or maybe more of a throwback to Mer de Noms? Or is it too early to tell?
Too early to tell. I think that's the musical conversation that Maynard and I will have. I'll throw him a file, see what he thinks, see how he responds and we kind of go from there. Not really setting out to climb any particular mountain. Just whatever mountain we happen to stumble upon. Music presents itself.
It came to my attention that next September Thirteenth Step turns 20, which is kind of mind blowing to me. That was a pretty seminal record for the era. Any prevailing thoughts and feelings on that record and that time for APC?
Yeah. I mean, I can remember it quite well making that record and especially the tour. Yeah, it was definitely a more involved record to make than the first one I would say. It takes some turns you might not expect. It's the first time I got to work with Danny Lohner in some capacity. And he and Maynard had become friends as well, so he was starting to get involved. And then Jeordie White was doing some stuff towards the end of the project. So it was just an interesting, different kind of setup from the first record. And it was fun. It was like a really fun tour to be on for sure.
Talking tours, you have a lengthy tour in support of this album. I imagine you're going to be playing the lion's share, if not the entire album. You must be excited for that and giving people a proper taste of this record?
Yeah, it's been a lot of challenges getting ready for it, I'll tell you that. COVID has definitely thrown a monkey wrench into the whole thing. We've got a Canadian bass player that can't get in the country. And so we've been trying to scramble to figure something out. And to be honest, just immigration has become challenging, to say the least.
What Normal Was is out now. Catch Billy Howerdel on tour this summer, including select dates supporting Puscifier!
Billy Howerdel's 2022 Tour Dates:
6/11 – Ventura, CA @ Ventura Music Hall
6/12 – Los Angeles, CA @ Greek Theatre *
6/14 – Solana Beach, CA @ Belly Up
6/15 – San Francisco, CA @ The Independent
6/16 – Roseville, CA @ Goldfield Trading Post
6/18 – Portland, OR @ Wonder Ballroom
6/19 – Seattle, WA @ Neumos
6/21 – Salt Lake City, UT @ Metro Music Hall
6/22 – Denver, CO @ Gothic Theatre
6/24 – Minneapolis, MN @ Fine Line Music Café
6/25 – Milwaukee, WI @ Summerfest
6/26 – St. Louis, MO @ Delmar Hall
6/28 – Chicago, IL @ Cabaret Metro
6/29 – Columbus, OH @ Newport Music Hall
7/1 – Rochester Hills, MI @ Meadow Brook Amphitheatre *
7/2 – Toronto, ON @ Axis Club
7/3 – Montreal, QC @ Café Campus
7/5 – Allston, MA @ Brighton Music Hall
7/6 – New York, NY @ Gramercy Theatre
7/8 – Philadelphia, PA @ Theatre of the Living Arts
7/9 – Baltimore, MD @ Baltimore Soundstage
7/10 – Charlotte, NC @ The Underground
7/12 – Atlanta, GA @ Masquerade
7/14 – New Orleans, LA @ House of Blues
7/15 – Houston, TX @ White Oak Music Hall – Inside Downstairs
7/16 – Dallas, TX @ The Echo Lounge & Music Hall
7/17 – Austin, TX @ Emos
7/20 – Phoenix, AZ @ Crescent Ballroom
* = supporting Puscifer