Billy Howerdel talks A Perfect Circle, Ashes Divide and teching for Nine Inch Nails

9th Dec 2013 | 19:01

Billy Howerdel talks A Perfect Circle, Ashes Divide and teching for Nine Inch Nails
Billy Howerdel talks A Perfect Circle, Ashes Divide and teching for Nine Inch Nails
Guitarist Billy Howerdel is busy plotting new music from both Ashes Divide and A Perfect Circle

Even though his robust and imaginative playing has been the dominant musical force behind the moody and metaphysical sound of A Perfect Circle, earlier this year guitarist Billy Howerdel decided that it was time to take a few lessons.

"I know guys who can just play you anything you want to hear," Howerdel says. "So I thought, 'Hey, I should be able to sit down and at least play a song on the guitar.’ I’m just not good at that. I mean, I can play Love Cats by The Cure, but once you get into learning arrangements and things like that, I’m like, ‘I don’t know.’ That's OK. I have my strengths, I guess."

That he does. Howerdel's intense, squalling guitar figures are front and center on two new APC releases, the greatest hits package Three Sixty and the sprawling live set A Perfect Circle Live: Featuring Stone And Echo. Howerdel sat down with MusicRadar recently to talk about both sets (including the new song By And Down, featured on Three Sixty), his plans for future Perfect Circle and Ashes Divide music, and what it was like to guitar tech for Nine Inch Nails.

You're originally from New Jersey. Were you a part of the "Jersey scene"? Did you play clubs like the Stone Pony?

“I worked for bands that were part of the scene. Before Perfect Circle, I only played three shows in my life. When I first picked up the guitar, after about six months, my two friends and I played a high school party. Our next gig was at some frat house, and then we played at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park, which is a place I had worked.

“I graduated high school and started doing lighting for bands and corporate events, plays and things in New York and Jersey. So I didn’t play that much at all, but I certainly worked the scene – that I knew. In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, I was everywhere.”

Billy Howerdel talks A Perfect Circle, Ashes Divide and teching for Nine Inch Nails
Billy Howerdel talks A Perfect Circle, Ashes Divide and teching for Nine Inch Nails

Do your experiences as a guitar tech make you treat your own tech extra nice?

[Laughs] “I don’t know. I used to think I was so easy, but I think maybe I’m not. When it comes to dealing with techs, I probably expect a lot. I’m sure I do. My current tech, who was with me on the first APC tour and now the last two, is this guy Justin Crew – he does Kirk Hammett and has been the Metallica guy for years and years. We have a great working relationship, but I’m… I’m probably a pain in the ass. [Laughs] That’s the bottom line.

“I try not to be difficult. I know what’s happening, so I try to get everything prepped ahead of time and to make sure things are as easy as possible. During the heat of battle, during a show, I’m not as calm as I am during everyday life, especially if something goes wrong.”

You played on Chinese Democracy. Got any good Axl Rose stories?

“Actually, I didn’t play on the record – I just played during some rehearsals. When they were auditioning drummers, I played bass – this was when Duff was kind of on the way out. [Nine Inch Nails guitarist] Robin Finck called me and said, ‘It’s the craziest thing. You’ll never guess what I just got an audition for.’ I was guessing all of these bands, and when he said, ‘Guns N’ Roses,’ I was like, ‘What? That’s insane!’ It just seemed so bizarre.

“He said that they were looking for some wild sounds, and then he asked me if I would go with him to help program. So I did. I went down and met Axl, and we hit it off that first day, and they offered me a job. I had no intention of getting a job; I got off the road and was planning to start Perfect Circle – only it wasn’t called A Perfect Circle then. But I fell in love with that project and wanted to see it through. Axl became a close friend.”

Billy Howerdel talks A Perfect Circle, Ashes Divide and teching for Nine Inch Nails
Billy Howerdel talks A Perfect Circle, Ashes Divide and teching for Nine Inch Nails
Howerdel and A Perfect Circle frontman Maynard James Keenan

The first Ashes Divide record was pretty much you and Josh Freese. Will the next one be more of a band effort?

“It’s gone through different evolutions, this one. There’s no set deadline for when it has to come out, so that will let an artist linger and overthink things. I’ve written a batch of songs that [bassist] Matt [McJunkins] and [drummer] Jeff [Friedl] have played, but I think that a good chunk of them will go to Perfect Circle. That’s the nice thing about the two bands sharing members. [Pauses] I haven’t really disclosed to them which songs are for which band.” [Laughs]

Oh! Well…

“Yeah, I’m working on the new material for Ashes, and I’m kind of doing it like in the old days – being a hermit, fleshing the things out and getting them to a certain point, and then I’ll bring them to a rehearsal place and have the guys play ‘em out.”

It’s interesting that you can write songs with the idea that either band might conceivably record them.

“It just comes down to ‘Where do you think it’s going to go?’ It was really just writing the next phase of APC; that’s where I’ve been designating these songs to go. But we’ll see. It really comes down to Maynard hearing them and feeling like he’s inspired or not, and will he find himself singing on them?

“It’s amazing what he can do with a complex arrangement and complex melodies that weave in and out. The first songs I gave him were The Hollow and Orestes, and with The Hollow I could barely see how that vocal was gonna go over this weird arpeggio thing. But there you go – he just did it. So we’ll see. With these things, they might go forward or they might not. It might be like old times, and he’ll find his path and weave the vocal around the music. Time will tell.”

A new APC record could still be a ways off – Maynard is in Tool-mode right now.

“He’s in Tool-mode. When he’s done, that just means there will be more skeletons and foundations of songs to be ripped apart or sung on. I’d like to have it ready, but I still want everything to be fresh. That’s sort of the challenge for me.”

Billy Howerdel talks A Perfect Circle, Ashes Divide and teching for Nine Inch Nails
Billy Howerdel talks A Perfect Circle, Ashes Divide and teching for Nine Inch Nails

I’m curious – did Maynard ever tell you specifically what he likes about your playing?

“No. No, it’s more like… ‘This sucks less than other things, even for me to sing on it.’”

What a compliment! “You suck less than other guys.”

“Yeah – ‘You such less than the other guys.’ That’s the general impressive I get. You know, I don’t look for accolades from Maynard. I don’t give them to him, either – in interviews, I mean. I assume he doesn’t read interviews. He’s a friend whom I don’t see a lot; when we work together, I still don’t see him that much. But as things go, I count him as one of my closest friends. That’s how it goes as you get older. I still understand that he is one of the greatest voices and lyricists in rock music. I’m always amazed at how prolific he is. There are some songs on the last Puscifer record that are absolutely incredible.”

The song By And Down on Three Sixty – did that come about any differently from other APC songs?

“In the initial stage, I guess. It came out of a melody idea that grew into a music foundation. Maynard latched onto it, sung to it. I was a little surprised that he picked that one from the batch of songs I gave him. You just never know how that’ll go. He threw down some vocals, and once I heard what he did it inspired me to take the music further. That’s typically the way it works.

“The song was basically hatched by me plunking around on the keyboard with my three-year-old son. He was banging his fist on the keys, and I was going, ‘Hey, how about using a single finger? Play a melody. Like this… ‘ I grabbed my phone and thought, ‘I should record this.’”

Talk to me about playing Red Rocks. Is it as awe-inspiring to be on that stage as it seems?

“Absolutely. At other arenas – like Madison Square Garden, which is awesome to play – once the lights go down, they can feel exactly the same. With Red Rocks, being on that stage is incredible. With our light show, we play more to shadows than we do to light, so the lights come up from the bottom and illuminate the side walls of the place. Pretty amazing. On top of having the adrenaline rush of having 10,000 people to share the experience, you have this unbelievable setting. A really beautiful place.”

Billy Howerdel talks A Perfect Circle, Ashes Divide and teching for Nine Inch Nails
Billy Howerdel talks A Perfect Circle, Ashes Divide and teching for Nine Inch Nails

Guitar-wise, you’re a real Gibson guy. What are you using these days?

“The same guitar I’ve always used: a 1960 Les Paul Classic reissue. I’ve got Tom Anderson pickups in that. I also use a 175 – I believe it’s the Steve Howe model. I’m not big on knowing all of my vintage specs.”

Some guitar tech.

[Laughs] “Yeah, right. I was more into the effects and MIDI – that’s always been my specialty. I could work on whatever guitars were around, and with Nine Inch Nails I got pretty good at working on whatever guitars were broken each night. My passion is in the technical side of things. For reasons purely financial, I’ve stuck to one main guitar. I know I have it, and I have a backup of it. I don’t want to have to carry 13 guitars around on the road with me.”

Back when you were teching, did you ever have a real nightmare where you thought you could be fired?

“I’m sure I did. Working for Trent Reznor on the Downward Spiral tour was unlike anything that ever was or will be – ever. It was pure chaos, mayhem and destruction. There was one pedal, the DigiTech Whammy pedal, and there was no way that was gonna survive what was happening on stage. Trent would come over and just crush that thing with full force.

“I hired the guy at DigiTech to make a remote version of it. But even though it was laser-based, the laser was out there on stage in a pedal form and the guts were in a rack. Trent would still crush the pedals, though. I had three of them in a trough. He’d crush one and another would go up; he’d break the second and a third one went up. If he broke the third one, I thought, ‘That’s it. Fuck, after this one, I’ve got nothing.’ And once everything breaks, that’s it – total destruction on stage. That was probably the most tension I felt out there, thinking that if the third pedal breaks the monitor board is going to come crashing onto the floor.”

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