METALSUCKS INTERVIEWS BILLY HOWERDEL OF ASHES DIVIDE / A PERFECT CIRCLE
After three Perfect Circle records with Tool’s Maynard James Keenan, Billy Howerdel is set to embark on his own journey with the brand new outfit Ashes Divide, essentially a solo project assembled around himself NIN-style. A few weeks back MetalSucks was fortunate enough to be able to speak with Billy, who was one of the more articulate and intelligent interview subjects we’ve spoken with to date. Billy told us about the long writing and recording process for the new record Keep Telling Myself It’s Alright (April 8th, Island/DefJam), the personal battles contained therein, working with a slew of guest musicians, and stepping out on his own from underneath Maynard’s shadow. The full interview transcript, after the jump.
MetalSucks: So you’ve got a new album on the way, can you tell us a little about it?
Billy Howerdel: There’s 11 songs, varying tempos. I started this thing in 2004 when I got off the road with APC. Kind of figuring what I was gonna do in the first year or two of that time. Trying to decide overall what the color of this whole project was gonna be, if I was in fact gonna sing and what that was gonna be like. Once it started coming together, I got Danny Lohner [Nine Inch Nails, Killing Joke] involved at about the halfway point, and he helped kind of starting flushing these ideas out, kind of in the big brother production way. I finished the record in November, and I’m coming out now dealing with the artwork and video and press, and I’m gonna go on tour in May.
Did you produce this one yourself or did you have help?
Well, Danny helped me. Well… I really kind of worked alone on this, and then Danny would come in with these big sweeping ideas and advice on things in kind of an executive producer kind of way. But for all intents and purposes I co-produced the record with him. One on one, face time with him in the same room — of the two years working on this thing — I’m sure I could figure out what it would be, but we probably spent a couple of weeks of working together. Several weeks of working together.
So you’ve been working on this thing for over three years, then what’s the writing process like? Do you demo stuff? Do you go and lay down beats or do you write with Danny at all, or how did you sort of put together the ideas?
Two of the songs I co-wrote with Paz Lenchantin [bass, ex-A Perfect Circle]. I asked her to come in and write stuff for a video game that was going on a few years back. One of those songs I kind of pulled out of there and thought it was a contender for this record and it got completely reshaped, but there was a wire-frame sketch of it that I thought was good enough to put in here. And then I started writing the lyrics for it. I started writing that a while back with her, and that was like 2000… I don’t remember what year it was, maybe like ’06 or something like that. And Johnette Napolitano from Concrete Blond, she also helped me in a production kind of way sitting with the vocals at the end of this record, kind of at the 11th hour, finishing up things that, ya know, were definitely needing some help in flushing out. So that was a huge help and she’s an incredible talent. She co-wrote a song with me called “Too Late.” She came over to my house and we talked about the content of the song and where I was going. And I don’t usually do that. I usually write from a line that will inspire another line and have that kind of…
A musical line or a lyrical line?
Either one. If it’s a lyrical line, if it’s just a fleeting thought or a one line thing it might develop into something that didn’t sound anything like the original line. With “Too Late” I had kind of a clear idea of what I wanted it to be about. I had this conversation for a couple of hours with her at my house and she drove back to her house that night and she said she just jotted it all down. Not even necessarily in the exact form of the song, but kind of in a line poetry form. And we kind of went back and hashed it out, and that became the verses for the song. And then the choruses that she had written, which I still think will see the light of day, I wanna do like a B-Side with her singing it. I think it was coming from a place where I couldn’t sing it. Like, I just couldn’t… actually get behind it. So we came and flushed out the chorus together. That was an interesting process. Mostly I was writing these songs on my own, and lyrically I’d run some things past Danny. I’d say “Does this suck? Or is this trite?” just kind of second guessing and just wanting him to take a look at it.
How’d you choose the musicians to play on the album? I know you had Josh Freese play some tracks, right?
Yeah, he played drums. It was kind of easy, Josh played drums on the record. And then my good friend Dean who works with me, Dean Sainz, he’s a drummer and he played on a song called “Ritual” with Josh. And I had Maynard’s son Devo play cello on a track. He just came over for dinner one night and he had his cello with him and I said, “wow, he’s really good, so…”
So you have a studio at home?
Is that where the whole record was recorded?
Yes, this and the last two Perfect Circle record were done here.
So you said a moment ago in the whole creative process, you said you were figuring out whether you were going to do the singing or not. How did you come to that decision, because obviously this is a new direction for you.
It just kept moving forward, so I stuck with it.
Do you feel any pressure, since this doesn’t have the Perfect Circle name, so it’s a whole different thing, but do you feel like without Maynard in the mix, that the casual fans aren’t really gonna be aware of the project? Or do you feel you have a certain standard to live up to in that regard?
Uhh… I think I understand…. Generally I understand. I know there are gonna be Maynard fans who wanna hear his voice who are gonna be horrified.
Let me clarify. Perfect Circle fans know that you were the dude behind the whole thing all along and that Maynard was kind of just the voice on it.
I wouldn’t say that though, I think that’s always been a misconception. I mean Maynard had a lot more to do with it than that opinion would state. We were definitely collaborating on it. I came in with this body of work for Mer De Noms that was pretty complete, I mean, things were still underway when he was there, but he was a huge contributor. To me it was 50/50 – I wrote the music and he wrote the words and most of the melodies. The more I’m doing now – and I wouldn’t even say this before but I have a more solidified opinion now in doing everything myself — that there was certainly… I mean I don’t know, it’s funny that he didn’t get as much credit. It’s almost like people are rooting for me ‘cause I’m the underdog in a way. And Maynard went out of his way, at least on the first record, to give me as much credit for things as possible, and then I think it kind of ran away from him and that people started running with that a little bit too far. But to be honest, and set the record straight, I think Maynard had a lot more to do with it than people give him credit for.
So was it tough doing some of the stuff you hadn’t previously done on your own?
Very. It was tough anyway, I mean I was writing all the music, and producing and engineering. And that’s more than a full-time job. And trying to go into something I had never done and didn’t have a comfort level with, like singing and writing lyrics – well, writing lyrics mostly. The singing part’s not the hard part, it’s just writing the lyrics and trying to stand behind that. It’s not just like Maynard had pretty good lyrics; he had amazing lyrics, and I think a lot of people agree. To come out of the shadows, where he was, or is, that’s a huge hill to climb, so that can certainly keep you in writer’s block for a while. It’s almost like that sophomore effort where you’re stumped on what to do. I felt that three-fold with this. The first record from my band, but there’s a lot of expectations that are gonna go into it. But then again there’s a lot of work to be done because a lot of people aren’t gonna know what it is. It’s a brand new band, so nobody knows who Ashes Divide are and it’s gonna be a long time ‘til people do.
What are some songs that you’re particularly proud of that you like on the new record?
“Too Late” is one of my favorites. I wrote it with Johnette. I think “Sword,” and… if I had to pick two it’d be those two.
Is the new material different from the stuff you did with A Perfect Circle in any particular way, or is it the next logical progression?
For me it’s the next logical progression, really. Well, I don’t know, I mean I could see it going… I always said that our third record, I saw it going more esoteric. And I guess it was a little bit, with you know, being a covers record. It was like stretching our leg in a different kind of way. There’s some things about that record I really like. If Perfect Circle lives again and we do something, I think there’s some parts of Emotive that I think could be tuned up and looked at as a good bed to work for as far as APC. As far as this record, there’s things I wouldn’t present to Maynard because I don’t think it’s where he comes from. We meet in the middle in a lot of places. We have a common love for some bands that really brought us together and we can speak the same language on. There’s some things that we don’t see eye to eye on, at least in the beginnings, or in the early steps of things, I might not even have presented these things to Maynard if they were in the current shape they were and let him start writing on them. “Too Late” is a good example, I don’t think I would’ve ever presented that to him in the form that it was when I started writing the lyrics on it. Started writing vocal melodies at least. When I gave it to Johnette [Napolitano, Concrete Blond] I felt like there was more of a freedom there, you know, that you don’t necessarily have to please someone you’re working with to work on it. That being said, it makes it so much harder because you don’t have anyone to work with, and you don’t have anyone to bounce ideas off of. So it was nice having Johnette to bounce ideas off of on that song. It’s definitely difficult when you’re doing it all on your own, but it’s rewarding at the end of the day. I’m glad I got through it., but I wish I’d known that I was really gonna get through it a year ago, because I’d be much more relaxed. I was definitely not sure if I was gonna be able to pull this off, to be honest.
Being your own boss is a blessing and a curse then.
Yeah, I mean, you gotta set your alarm clock, which is not always so fun.
A moment ago you mentioned Emotive, a record which was political at times. Are the new lyrics that you’ve written at all political?
I’m sure there’s something that slips in there but these songs are more dealing with personal relationships. It’s funny because there’s a kind of duality to them. There’s some macrocosm topics being tackled in a very personal, one on one kind of way. But there’s only a few of those I would say. But that’s all to be interpreted later. There’s no driving force like there was behind Emotive. Emotive was just, the driving force was just collecting cover songs that could be interpreted in a political kind of way.
Are you a political person? Do you plan to comment on politics?
You know, I have been paying attention, I’m into and I listen to NPR quite a bit, you know, so I try to… I don’t know, from whatever side of things you look at, I don’t know if you look at that as a skewed source. It’s funny, in this race in particular I think it’s cool and interesting that there are more people involved than ever. People seem to be more into it than they should have been when the most dire decision was going on back in 2004 (laughs). Umm…. I don’t have a whole lot to say, I don’t have any platform to be on as far as politics right now.
So getting back to the music, are there plans to go on tour soon, and do you have the touring band assembled?
Well in May we’re looking to go out and tour. I’m putting a band together, I’ve got I’d say half of the band made and I’m looking for the other half. But I’m pretty close to having it, you know I just gotta pull the trigger on a few people. So this week I should have things lined up. I’m about to go on a press tour, go to some radio stations around the country next week, so I wanna have it solidified before then.
Do you get tired of people asking you about working with Axl Rose?
Haha, I don’t know what to say sometimes, because I was there for a long time. But it’s not like you would think, like crazy stuff was going on. It wasn’t some crazy situation. I always think people expect a big answer. I had a very strange job which wasn’t exactly labeled but I just call it “pro tools engineer” or “pro tools editor” or something like that. But it afforded me the learning, I got to learn a lot about making records, and I’d never been in the studio for that long a time. I think I can say that I made a better sounding record than I would’ve because I worked for Guns N’ Roses. I got to be around a lot of people that knew what they were doing and the bar got raised to what I found to be acceptable for music production, form being in there.
Did you and Danny mix this record together or did you get an outside mixer?
No, I mixed it, and then… mixers will usually do the rough mixes which aren’t too far from the final mixes, but it really is that extra 5% that makes the difference. And I had Alan Moulder mix it. Alan’s really great, really easy to work with. And so is Andy Wallace to be honest with you. Andy and Alan are the only mixers that I’ve worked with, with APC and Ashes Divide. There were a couple songs in particular I thought he would really do justice to and he went beyond my expectations honestly. Alan’s a great guy to work with. He knows what he’s doing and has zero ego, and I try and usually find that in the people I work with. I just had a great photographer and video director do the same thing. Very professional, knows what they’re doing, and has zero ego, and we can just move on with it. It’s not always easy to find but when you do find it it’s great.
Cool, well we’re really excited for the new record. Any final words you want to say to the fans?
Yeah, I didn’t mention Matt Skiba, from Alkaline Trio. I’ve become good friends with him in the last few years, well really the last year. I called him to see if he wanted to work on a track, and it winded up just being a day or two of taking six pages of lyrics I’d already written and organizing them into a thought that was a little bit more concise than what I had. So I’m just giving him vocal production credit on the record, but Matt really inspired me to move forward with this and I truly want to thank him… I get that from a lot of my friends but it’s just like, from a singer I respect who’s really cool.
Are you satisfied with the vocal performance and lyric writing?
Yeah, I mean it sounds weird saying that but yeah, I am, I’m really proud of this record. To me there’s no filler on it. Not to say there was filler on the APC records, but there were some things that I would do different. But it was collaboration, but it was a compromise, and I was happy with the compromise that I made in APC. But with this I didn’t have to make a compromise, I had to push through into being my own, and I can proudly say there’s 11 strong songs, at least from my point of view, on this record. They’re all equal strength songs that made the record.
Well that’s great, congratulations. Certainly looking forward to it. Nice chatting with you man, thanks for taking the time.
Thank you, of course. Bye bye.
[Check out the video for the first Ashes Divide single “The Stone”]
[Be sure to enter the MetalSucks and Travelworm.com Ashes Divide contest; one lucky winner and a guest will be flown to LA to stay at a super swanky hotel for 2 nights, PLUS they get to go see Ashes Divide live, PLUS they get to watch the show from the friggin’ stage, PLUS they get a private meet and greet with the band!]