A Name by any Other Tool: The Epic Clarity of A Perfect Circle

Tool fans may be antsy to hear new music from the band, but Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan isn't. Its been four years since Keenan and company sprang the epic Aenima on the world, and in that time the band not only pursued the usual road work that accompanies an album of such magnitude, but grappled with what seemed like an endless string of court dates, delays and negotiations to reach a settlement with its label, Freeworld Entertainment -- formerly called Volcano and Zoo, and, soon to be known as Volcano II. By the time Freeworld agreed to a 50/50 joint venture arrangement with the band at the end of 1998, everyone needed a break. Guitarist Adam Jones and drummer Danny Carey took time out to get married and buy homes while Keenan delved into A Perfect Circle -- a project that got its start a couple years earlier when Keenan first heard some of the music that Joness guitar tech Billy Howerdel had been recording on his own.

The resulting album, Mer de Noms (French for sea of names) features songs named after various individuals: (Magdalene, Rose, Thomas), and the music bears a definite likeness to Tool. Keenans distinctive, brooding vocals are unmistakable, yet the music is more subtle, the end result of a different band dynamic. Where Keenan and his Tool bandmates tend to write together, with A Perfect Circle he found himself composing vocals to match Howerdels already completed music.

According to Keenan, the change of pace has been refreshing and will hopefully enhance the material currently in the works for the next Tool album. In the mean time, A Perfect Circle -- rounded out by guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen, bassist Paz Lenchantin and drummer Josh Freese -- is currently on tour with Nine Inch Nails. Before hitting the road, Keenan and Howerdel took some time out at the end of a long day of rehearsals to talk about the impetus behind A Perfect Circle and the elusive, illusive undercurrents that flow through Mer de Noms.

Guitar.com: Was the name theme deliberate -- like a concept album -- or did it just crop up in the writing process?

Maynard James Keenan: Some of it was deliberate -- its not trying to describe one certain specific event but [create] an overall tone in some of the words. Others were actual peoples names and the songs are about them.

Guitar.com: Did you write these all at once or are these songs you generated over time?

Keenan: Hes been writing the music for quite a while.

Billy Howerdel: A lot of these songs musically kind of write themselves to me. I just didn't rush it -- one part gets written in one place and a year later the bass line comes. I tried maybe to achieve something [specific] on a couple occasions but for the most part it was whatever felt right, whatever was flowing at the time.

Guitar.com: The name theme and the way you imply the stories associated with each one -- Judith was an Old Testament heroine, Orestes was Electras brother, and of course Sleeping Beauty -- reminded me of Joseph Campbells The Power of Myth. Did you study folklore or mythology?

Keenan: I've read a lot of his books, read a lot of Jungian stuff. I've also read a lot of Mad Magazines -- and oddly enough theyre full of a lot of the same stuff really.

Guitar.com: Well, rock stars are kind of like real life trickster characters.

Keenan: I don't think most of them are intelligent enough to really know what they're doing so they get to a point where they're kind of like a rat in a maze that hits the red button and gets a pellet and he's rewarded. Most of them havent really done the research or done the personal work on an emotional level where they can go beyond just pushing that button and getting to that next level of reward. They don't think to get beyond their comfort zone.

Guitar.com: Where did you first cross paths with Billy?

Keenan: France.

Howerdel: I was working for Fishbone in 1991, 1992 and met him with Tool -- opening strangely enough. From there we were friends and kind of became better friends years down the road. A couple years after that, when they were recording Aenima, I was working with them in the studio and I actually had a studio of my own -- a little portable studio with headphone and speakers -- and he heard some of the stuff I was working on, and that was the first notion or idea of us working on music together. From there I just continued writing songs and we finally found it in our schedules to make it happen. It just took a while -- it was mostly me sitting in my studio writing and refining these songs.

Guitar.com: Did you study music or are you pretty much self-taught?

Howerdel: Self-taught. I tried to figure out every song I liked and the ones I really liked I never touched because I didnt want to ruin it. Because once you learn a song -- its like when you see a beautiful girl and you want to get to know her and when you finally get to know her, this person isn't quite what you thought. I think thats true for music as well sometimes.

Guitar.com: If you get too close you start to see the flaws?

Howerdel: Sometimes you lose some of the magic. Music is definitely my passion. It's what Ive always done for work and pleasure but there is a little bit of a price to pay. When you keep refining something and keep working on it, if you want to get it up to a certain level, you lose some of that. Some of these songs were like that. Some of them were tedious, really trying to get it to another level. Some of them just wrote themselves and I never touched them after that. One day it happened and that was it: It was the right time, the light was right, I was in a good mood, my environment was right. Those are the fun ones to me.


Guitar.com: Was there a particular experience that made you first pick up a guitar?

Howerdel: Going to see concerts is such a magical experience when youre a kid. I mean, its hard to say now because once you cross that line -- like, once you start working behind the scene a little bit you lose a little bit of that magic. You get a bit jaded. But I think I saw a Pink Floyd saw a show in 1988, and that was kind of the last straw. It just hit me, and I was fascinated thinking about the actual possibility -- like, those are just human beings down there. I could be one of them. My interest sparked a lot from there to actually pursue it and my friend Rob Koppel back in New Jersey was a guitar player and I would sit and listen to him play guitar for hours. I was just into listening to it, amazed by it, and I went and got a crap guitar my uncle had. It began from those two things -- the one night it hit me at a concert, and Rob playing guitar. And then I just immediately started writing. There was a place down the street that rented four-track recorders and basses and drum machines and within months after learning to play I was just writing horrific, terrible songs [chuckles].

Guitar.com: Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?

Howerdel: Yep, I do. It's still around. It might be on the next record.

Guitar.com: What was it called?

Howerdel: Just C Sharp. A lot of things I'd call by what key theyre in, but Hollow -- the first song on this album -- was probably about the second or third thing Ive ever written. That was written in like, 1988. Its come a long way since then -- I think I've added two parts -- but the basis of the song was there. I was such a Cure fan in the beginning. I still am, but at that time all I listened to was Siouxsie and the Banshees and the Cure and Killing Joke. The Cures Pornography and Faith and 17 Seconds were just huge for me and at the time I wanted to be that. So thats where it starts for me.

Guitar.com: Maynard, was it weird coming up with imagery for someone elses music? Did you need to understand where the song was coming from?

Keenan: A lot of it he would have pretty much finished and I would listen to it over and over again and get in the right mood -- cause I am a real advocate of the whole collective unconscious school of thought. To me, a metaphor for the collective unconscious as we move into a whole new age of consciousness is being demonstrated by the Internet. It is the collective unconscious. All the information is there. You just have to know how to focus and retrieve it.

Just can't get enough? Check out...