When A Perfect Circle released their debut album, Mer de Noms, in 2000, they instantly hit it big with their debut single, “Judith," and snagged a sweet gig opening up for Nine Inch Nails’ arena tour. Having Maynard James Keenan as your lead singer can kinda help with that sort of thing. But while it might appear from the outside that Billy Howerdel, the group’s lead songwriter and guitarist, had won the lottery, his overnight success came after a decade of learning the music-industry game. And those lessons in patience would come in handy, as A Perfect Circle developed a career routine of quick bursts of activity followed by hiatuses that last several years while Keean turns his attention to other interests.
Howerdel says he knew what he was getting when he decided to form a band with Keenan. “That's the nature of the way this family was set up from the beginning; we were going to go on a break, and then come back when he had the time,” Howerdel says, “when Tool wasn't working and when [Keenan’s] winery and then Puscifer gets a little more chilled out.”
Howerdel started off as a roadie and guitar tech for Fishbone, Rollins Band, and eventually Tool. While on tour with the latter, he struck up a friendship with Keenan, who overheard the demos Howerdel had been working on and asked to collaborate. (Howerdel had originally written his gothic art-metal songs with a female singer in mind.) From 2000 to 2004, A Perfect Circle released three albums, including 2003’s anguished Thirteenth Step and the 2004 politically minded covers album Emotive. A Perfect Circle took a six-year break after that, returning in 2010 for a run of shows and a live-album box set. This flurry of activity resulted in just one new song, but Howerdel was hoping for a bit more. “By 2011, I had a handful of songs. Certainly by 2013, when we went on tour again, if you would have asked me my money would have been that by 2014, we would have a record out, or maybe by ‘15 at the latest,” he admits . “But it just didn't work out that way.”
Making time for balance and growth
Now, Howerdel is probably the only guitarist in the world that has to work around the schedule of a singer with a legendary group that still headlines festivals and who also has an absurdist solo project and a bustling side gig as a winemaker. But plenty of artists have outside interests, and Howerdel has a unique insight into how taking a hiatus can help the members of a band keep a healthy work-life balance and scratch their extracurricular itches.
A year after A Perfect Circle started their break, Howerdel and his wife had their first child. He took some time to simply enjoy family life and do a bit of soundtrack work. Later, he started working on Keep Telling Myself It's Alright, the debut album from his solo project ASHES dIVIDE.
“The great thing and the challenge was that I wrote the majority of the music in A Perfect Circle, and I'm going to write the majority of the music in ASHES dIVIDE. So, to differentiate them was the challenge,” he says. “I approached it with some light guardrails. I tried to write things in a little bit more of a major key, and tried to write things a little bit faster tempo than I was comfortable usually doing. At first, it was a frightening process to go and put my neck out on the line as a lead singer. I knew I could sing, but being a lead singer entails more than singing.”
Now when A Perfect Circle perform live, he feels more comfortable helping out with some of the complex harmonies, and he’s more willing to tinker with his established writing patterns. During their most recent hiatus, Howerdel “put down the guitar for a few years,” he says. “I don't play for fun, and I don't play for practice. I only really play for writing songs.” During his time off, he began to develop an interest in pianos and keyboards, which he says helped informed the lush, grandiose sound of their new album, Eat the Elephant. Hiatuses, he says, are helpful for “building up ideas and having the passion to jump back in.” After taking the time to reflect, Howerdel says he had an idea for a new direction when Keenan called in late 2016 to ask, “Hey, what's your what's your next year and half look like?"
Getting back into the groove
In terms of coming back from hiatus to play some shows, Howerdel says that if you’re playing music you’ve performed before, once the guitars and keyboards have been properly programmed, it only takes about a week and a half for the band to get back into proper shape. But coming back from hiatus to make new music is an entirely different matter, one that requires more than a week.
“You do have to relearn, and get to know the person across from you that you're writing with. I have to meet Maynard where he is this year, and he has to meet me where I am. What influences have permeated into whatever engine inside of you makes your songwriting happen?” he says. “You have to kind of get in touch with those, or rebel against them, absorb them, whatever. It's another conversation, but it's not really a chore. It's just a process. It’s the organic nature of creativity. It's the imperfection of being human and the imperfection of schedules not being aligned and robotic. The more time you have for those little parts of life to interject into it, the more you're going to have a different result.”
After their fall tour is over, the next hiatus will begin. He knows they’ll get back together again at some point, and in the meantime he’ll begin work on his next solo project and enjoy life as a “glorified chauffeur and cook” to his two children. He’s at the age, he says, where he’s not too worried what will happen to him if he stops, so he’s just going to take his time with music.
He admits that, sure, if it were up to him, “we'd have seven full-lengths out right now.” But even if A Perfect Circle were on a more regular schedule, he says there would still be hiatuses built in so that his band would never feel too much like a routine. “Hiatuses and breaks are important, creatively. I think you get out of the ruts. You might fall back in love with the passion for why you pick it up in the first place,” he says. “If you say ‘I’m taking these three months off and then I'm going to jump into it,’ that’s the tantric sex equivalent of music.”
When bands find themselves burnt out or stifled, don’t be afraid to hit pause, Howerdel says. But the most practical piece of advice he can offer to a band that think they might need to take time off is to plan ahead, which he admits is advice he might have recoiled from earlier in his career.
“If you can be so disciplined as to set a date,” he says, admitting that “it's kind of icky thinking to be regimented with creativity, because you get into the scare of being in this factory mode,” he says. “But I think it's a worthy thing. I think I wouldn't be afraid to have something on the calendar and just do it.”