A PERFECT CIRCLE: The Man Who Wasn't There October 2003

By Tom Mallon

Billy Howerdel is a former guitar tech whose downtime project turned into a platinum-selling band. He’s used to the spotlight not being his. Maynard James Keenan, the singer in Tool, one of the bands Howerdel worked for, is another story. While lots of artists avoid the spotlight, he uses its glare in his ultimate disguise.

Maynard James Keenan is trapped in a cage, feet nailed to the floor, the crowd anxiously awaiting some serious suffering. The 4’ by 4’ cell, presumably of his own design, holds him high above the rest of his band and imprisons him behind a wall of white cloth. He’ll spend the entire first song in this box, perhaps singing more to the wall directly in front of him than to the unseen audience behind it. Below him, A Perfect Circle demolishes “Pet,” bathed in lights he can’t see, while he waits for his turn. When it comes, the fury of sound and light joins him in the box. Outside, it looks like someone behind him opened a door onto the sun: The cage floods with light, blazing his silhouette nine feet high on the front wall, and the crowd screams for a man they can’t even see.

The curtain drops and the cage opens, but thanks to a true marvel of modern lighting design, the crowd won’t see Keenan’s face for the entirety of the show. Even standing right in front of them, they’ll see as much of him as when he was behind the curtain—just a silhouette with words coming from where the head should be. Later, shortly after offering up “3 Libras” and its mantra of “You don’t see me,” the stage lights converge on a spot some two feet in front of him, completely obliterating his image. The crowd goes apeshit; Keenan may as well not be there at all.

Keenan’s a master of disguise, preferring wigs. Press photos for Mer De Noms, APC’s debut, got a midtorso- length straight brown number, and he treated Tool’s Lateralus to a red spiky surfer cut; live, he’s approximated everything from powdered televangelist to demon Smurf to Long Island housewife-turned-hooker. Earlier this particular afternoon, he hid in plain sight in front of millions on MTV News with the help of an Alanis-style bird’s-nest and a pair of Welcome To The Dollhouse-rivaling glasses (which he doesn’t need). Bored, fidgeting and letting guitarist Billy Howerdel be the face of the band, he looked more like a nerdy highschool girl than a hard-rock icon. As soon as he exited the interview, which he calls “a jaw-breaking yawn,” he switched to the Regular Guy: Exit wig and glasses, enter beige jacket and army hat.

Up close, you don’t fare much better than in the audience. Conversation Maynard’s as blank a slate as shadowy Stage Maynard. Sitting next to him, you’ll swear the temperature drops. Shaking his hand is like gripping a door handle. The army hat is pulled down snug, hiding his eyes; in a half an hour, he will look you in the face exactly three times, two of which come when you sit down and stand up. Ask him a question, and there’s a delay that suggests there’s a little man behind his forehead flipping through a “How To Speak Human” dictionary. You don’t know exactly where his mind is, but it certainly isn’t sitting next to you—sitting next to you is the last place Maynard James Keenan wants to be, and answering questions about the themes woven through the dark, obsessive The Thirteenth Step (Virgin) is the last thing he wants to do.

In Alcoholics Anonymous lore, “thirteenth stepping” is deemed one of the most destructive behaviors one can indulge in: older members picking up on the new recruits, sexual predators seeing a newcomer’s unstable sobriety as an open invitation. One independent AA group’s newsletter advises its members that “thirteenth-stepping” is “the most self-seeking, willful and inconsiderate behavior, understandably despised and discouraged.” Given the characters that populate The Thirteenth Step—the shameless, addicted liar of “The Package,” the “medicated drama queen” he condemns in “The Outsider,” or the trembling voice of “Weak And Powerless”—it would seem that Keenan’s been devouring some AA literature. All throughout the record, demons are being exorcised, enablers turned away, poisons identified, isolated and flushed from the system.

“There might be some of that… maybe,” Keenan says, the sound escaping him a scant fraction of his huge singing voice. “Some of it. I wouldn’t say that’s the entirety of it. As was [Mer De Noms], it definitely has to do with relationship dynamics. Trying to grow and understand the emotional, spiritual and physical repercussions of those relationships.”

Keenan draws his fingers together at the tips and concentrates on them like he’s building a house of cards. The visible bottom half of his face is as expressionless as a worn stone, each sentence in monotone, words dragged out by horses. The thirteenth step theory hits the same wall of indifference.

“That might be one of them,” he sighs. A slight head movement. “I’ve been in L.A. for 13 years… I’ve been through a lot there, a lot of changes, a lot of different movements in my career and personal life, and this is like the 13th year in this process. It could be any one of those things you’ve looked up. I like to push the idea of drawing your own conclusions, and whatever of those definitions applies to wherever you are in your life, that makes them valid.”

The other popular meaning of the thirteenth step is the final step into the grave.

“Hmm. Interesting.”

A colossal pause opens up, a huge, yawning maw of silence, the type of silence good for contemplating the larger mysteries of the universe. His face retreats further behind the hat, leaving only the tip of a perfectly cleanshaven chin as representative.

“Could be that one too.”

Keenan cuts short any further discussion of the album’s themes. “I’m not really sure when this article comes out, but depending on who’s reading it, if they haven’t heard the album yet it would be best for them to skip over this section,” he says, explaining his reticence. “Best for them to feel the album first before they start thinking it, or be given the cheat codes.” He won’t talk about the “Weak And Powerless” video either, preferring that everything remain as unspoiled as possible.

“Just like the music, you should just look and absorb rather than give too much of it away,” he says, growing animated at last. “Did you see 28 Days Later? Don’t let anybody tell you anything about it—don’t let anybody say a word about it. That way no one has imposed their opinion about any of it on you, you can just experience it for the first time. That movie, Delicatessen and The City Of Lost Children, The Usual Suspects, a bunch of movies that I saw without anyone telling me anything about them, it was a much better experience not having had someone push their opinion on me. I had a friend who told me that she knew what was up in The Usual Suspects. She said, ‘Well, [people] said you’ve gotta go see it because it has a good twist.’ It ruined the movie for her. She figured it out in the first half hour and the rest was just waiting for them to drop the bomb.”

On goodbye, Keenan finally looks up, and gives a slightly more lifelike handshake—from doorknob to mannequin, perhaps. Waiting in a different area of the hotel for the rest of the band, a member of the APC entourage comes over and nods in Keenan’s direction.

“How bad was it?”

Not that bad, he just… takes a while to open up.

“Yeah,” he snorts. “Maybe if you had a few years to get to know him.”

Billy Howerdel, ostensibly A Perfect Circle’s other half, makes for a much more inviting prospect. Dressed (like his bandmates) in the same head-to-toe black outfit that he’ll wear onstage later that night, he smiles, he looks you in the eye, he seems as happy to be talking about A Perfect Circle as if it were a brand new band. Which, in a way, it is. Between Mer De Noms and The Thirteenth Step, Keenan and Howerdel redrew A Perfect Circle, starting with the writing process. For Mer De Noms, Howerdel dictated how most of the songs sounded, mostly due to the decade he spent laboring over them between guitar-tech gigs for bands like Nine Inch Nails and Tool. Starting with a cleaner slate led to giving up a certain amount of control and being more open to collaboration.

“Maynard had a lot more input in this record,” Howerdel says. “The songs we presented to Maynard [at first]… he didn’t… he wasn’t, you know, into some of the direction it was going, so I had to work a little harder in that respect, to accommodate what his vision was for it. Maynard’s pretty much doing all of the artwork, he’s doing the video; he had a lot more say as to how the music sounded this time, where last time I kind of steered the ship.”

“The first time around we didn’t have the luxury of time so we just had to go with what we had, and not stress about it or dissect it too much,” Keenan said of the restructuring. “This time I wanted to take more time, and assert more of my musical ideas into it and blend them with Billy’s. I don’t think he’d really done that before, too much, so it was kind of a learning process for him as well, accepting other people’s musical ideas.”

Having handled the writing, they had to rebuild the band: After the project that Howerdel had been working on in his bedroom for a decade grew into a platinum band, he fell victim to poachers. Billy Corgan spirited bassist Paz Lenchantin away to Zwan, guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen wandered off into the desert with Queens Of The Stone Age. APC’s website played it off: The vegan Lenchantin, in a state of “meat deprivation,” became delirious and “followed a ‘bald man named Billy’ onto the wrong bus” (she’s since quit); Van Leeuwen was spotted “hanging around with Craig Kilborn.” An alt-rock who’s-who paraded through Howerdel’s studio looking to fill the bill: Curve’s Rob Halliday came in to play bass and guitar (unused). While Perry Farrell and Dave Navarro sullied their legacy elsewhere, Jane’s Addiction bassist Eric Avery tried his hand with APC (also unused). NIN guitarist/bassist Danny Lohner contributed guitar and programming to The Thirteenth Step (used), and was announced as the band’s new live guitarist, only to vanish when the new lineup was debuted. So many other people auditioned for the slots that Keenan can’t even remember them all.

“We had a bunch of wonderful musicians come in and play bass and guitar, but they’re not necessarily going to serve the project in the way it needs to be served,” Keenan’s take on it goes. “At the end of the day, they’re all incredible musicians and they really brought a lot of themselves to the table, but I think, um… their personalities would be best served in a whole new and fresh project.”

Keenan and Howerdel found what they were looking for in former Marilyn Manson bassist Jeordie White (née Twiggy Ramirez), who handed in his makeup and babydoll dresses last year after close to 10 years with the band. With APC, White seems like a man let out of prison. His playing on Thirteenth blows away his work with Manson with its sheer range, from the serpentine, hypnotic subtlety of “The Package” to the Tool-worthy, nimble “Weak And Powerless” or the titanic sludge of “Pet.” Later that night at Irving Plaza, the comatose Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? look discarded, he will actually smile onstage.

Bassist in place, it seemed that one bald turn deserved another: A bald man named Billy took Lenchantin, so APC’s own bald Billy grabbed his former bandmate, Smashing Pumpkin James Iha, to replace the suddenly-exited Lohner—two weeks before the beginning of a tour. “Danny’s an incredible player, very interesting ideas, but the ideas didn’t necessarily match what we were doing here,” Keenan said. “So all of a sudden I just thought of James, and Billy thought of James at the same time, completely separately, a passing thought. I was tripping over myself to get to the phone, like, ‘Duh, James Iha.’ There was a whole list of auditions that were coming in and we just had to call them and cancel because I just knew in my heart that that was the right decision.

“It was a gamble, we were leaving in two weeks to go on the road, and James didn’t know any of the songs. But he’s a quick learner and the energy’s really good. And at the end of the day, you’ve got to be in a bus with these fuckin’ people for a year; you want to be friends and get along, there’s no point being on the road hating and tolerating each other. It’s a negative experience and that translates, and the music doesn’t go the level that it should. I won’t do it. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be on the road with someone like Axl Rose, it would be ridiculous, I wouldn’t even bother.”

Iha indoctrinated, the circle is once again unbroken, with the right combination of personalities, complete and (for the moment) blissfully ego free. “I’ve never felt more like I was in a band,” White says. “I just feel like everyone is an equal, on a personal level and talent level. It’s a great thing to be a part of… This is a fresh slate for all of us to make a new relationship with.” He laughs, perhaps surprised that someone who spent nearly a decade with the God of Fuck is painting such a bucolic picture. “In a few years,” he jokes, “you’ll ask us this question and we’ll all hate each other.”

Back at the show, from his podium, Keenan’s turning a mirror on every selfish, destructive behavior he can think of, bringing fire down from the mountain, and drunk girls are grinding like it’s a Christina Aguilera concert. Tatted-out, shirtless meatheads slam it out in the pit, record company vice presidents bob their heads while confabbing with their staff in the VIP section. Some dude yells “San Dimas high school football rules!” Keenan remains in the cage, lost in the music, possibly completely unaware there’s even an audience present. In fact, his voice reaches its most powerful when he turns his back to the crowd.

Throughout the show, Keenan seems to open up, cracking a few purposefully corny jokes from the shadows. The guy does have a sense of humor, after all, even if he’s often loathe to show it. It shouldn’t be a surprise: He’s written songs called “Hooker With A Penis”; his publishing company is named Harry Merkin, after the inventor of the pubic wig. He’ll pose for magazine shots in only his underwear and huge bug-eye glasses. He’s outlandish, just completely, perversely deadpan.

Keenan invites Iha to tell a story; Iha takes the mic and wheezes his way through an asthmatic a capella while Keenan waves his hands in the air. A guy leans over to complain that he’s annoyed by the jokes: “Why do they spend all this time setting up this theatrical set and then ruin it with bad stand-up comedy?” That’s probably the point, to annoy people; that would appeal to Keenan’s perverse sense of humor. Later, a fansite confirms that it’s all pretend: The spontaneous joke portions of the set, and even many of the incidental asides, have been the same in every review, all the way back to the dress rehearsal. Keenan so carefully controls how he presents himself that even his spontaneity is scripted.

He reenters the shadows for the rest of the set, feet still rooted like he’s standing in concrete. The silhouette throws its arms out, convulses, jacks off a huge, imaginary cock, and taunts the audience: “You don’t, you don’t, you don’t see me.” APC saves “Judith” for last, the lights igniting, eradicating the band over and over. As they exit, Keenan finally leaves his cage and comes down to the front, throwing his remaining water bottles to the drenched crowd and giving them the one thing they’ve wanted even more than a drink—a glimpse of his face, if only for a second.

Not two seconds after they leave the stage, the PA blasts into “Margaritaville,” the most inappropriate song possible. It wouldn’t be surprising if Keenan had planned that, too. It also wouldn’t be surprising if a third eye opened in the middle of his forehead. Of course, you wouldn’t see it. Like the other two, it would be under his hat.