Billy Howerdel is usually the quiet giant in A Perfect Circle. Sure, the guitarist does most of the interviews, but frontman Maynard James Keenan has always been the band’s mouthpiece, even if he traditionally has been press-shy. With an important presidential election on the horizon, however, Howerdel is through keeping his thoughts to himself.
“Ordinarily, I hate talking about politics,” he said. “I usually heed the warning of many elders that say, ‘Never discuss it with your friends, or certainly publicly,’ but it’s an important time to voice your opinions and feelings.”
It’s hardly a secret which candidate A Perfect Circle’s two principals, Howerdel and Keenan, are voting for on November 2 — not coincidentally, the same day the band’s third album, eMOTIVe, drops. That the follow-up to last year’s Thirteenth Step consists of 10 covers and just two new songs may surprise APC’s longtime fans who valued the group for its originality (see “A Perfect Circle Album Preview: Politics? They’ve Got It Covered” ), but the politically charged collection of tunes ranging from Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” to Fear’s facetiously titled “Let’s Have a War” isn’t without its powerful statements.
“Rather than write songs from the ground up,” Howerdel explains, “taking existing songs — some political, some protest songs, but some that aren’t either — and stringing them together hopefully relays the message that we’re feeling. Songs like ‘When the Levee Breaks’ [most famously covered by Led Zeppelin] and [Depeche Mode's] ‘People Are People’ aren’t protest songs by any means, but within the thread of this record, they communicate what we’re trying to say.”
Keenan and Howerdel hatched the idea for eMOTIVe a year ago while on the road. As any fan who caught one of those shows and heard Keenan rail against the war in Iraq and the policies of the current administration from the stage can attest, the singer didn’t have to reach very far for inspiration.
“When we came up with the idea of doing a covers record, there was also the question, ‘Why are we doing a covers record?’ ” Howerdel explained. “We wanted to do something that had meaning to us, something worthy of a third record. That’s when Maynard had the idea of doing a political record, and right off the bat I thought it was a good idea.
“Actually,” he conceded, “it wouldn’t have been the first thing I would have picked, but with the world climate the way it is, and our disgust with all of that, it seemed like a good time to communicate some sort of message.”
Despite singing other people’s songs, APC personalize or inject a different meaning into music by the way those songs are played. The medium is truly the message when familiar lyrics to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” take on a more desperate tone when matched with an ominous backdrop. And for those fans who may not know Gaye’s wake-up call by heart, it’s equally as distressing hearing it for the first time in 2004.
“Either we were not born when these songs came out, or they’ve become background music while you were sitting in the back of your mom’s station wagon when you were a kid,” Howerdel said. “Hopefully, it will become another soundtrack to a different time. Unfortunately, it may not be one of the best of times.”