The Package: The Story Of How A Perfect Circle Went From A Humble Roadie's Dream To An Alt-Rock Super Group In Three East Steps...Uh, Make That Thirteen By Chris Gill

"Part of becoming a better musician is admitting that you have a lot more to learn.- Jeordie White

To an outsider, it may appear as if Billy Howerdel had hit upon an ingenious plan back in the Nineties to rise from roadie to rock star:

1. Get a guitar tech gig with popular bands like the Smashing Pumpkins, Tool, Guns n'Roses and Nine Inch Nails.

2. Establish friendships with the members of those bands.

3. Recruit those friends to join your own band, A Perfect Circle.


The thing is, Howerdel never thought of his success in that way until Guitar World suggested it to him.

"You know, you're right," says a surprised and amused Howerdel. "Everyone in this band is from another band that I've worked for."

Whatever Howerdel's motives were, he's come a long way from the days when he tuned guitars for people like Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan and tweaked computers for Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor. The guitarist says it wasn't a dark and dastardly plot but an ideal combination of good luck, perfect timing and being in the right place at the right time enabled him to form A Perfect Circle, a supergroup that boasts Tool vocalist Maynard James Keenan, former Pumpkins guitarist James Iha, ex-Marilyn Manson bassist Jeordie White (a.k.a. Twiggy Ramirez) and Josh Freese, who has played drums with the Vandals and Guns n' Roses.

A Perfect Circle came into being when Tool took an extended hiatus, owing to legal problems with their label. Itching to work on new material, Keenan – Howerdel's roommate during the nineties – began collaborating with the guitarist. The duo then fleshed out the arrangements with bassist Paz Lenchantin, guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen and drummer Freese, and recorded Circle's debut, 2000's Mer de Noms.

Although the and is often viewed as Keenan's side project, it is actually Howerdel's love child. He remains heavily involved in all creative aspects of A Perfect Circle, from producing their records to writing their music. But because Keenan's main commitment is to Tool, Howerdel has experienced some difficulty keeping the band together when the singer isn't around. Lenchantin was the first to split from the group; she departed to join Billy Corgan's post-Pumpkins effort, Zwan, in 2002. (Lenchantin recently left Zwan as well.) Van Leeuwen hung around until the beginning of 2003 – long enough to play guitar on several tracks on A Perfect Circle's sophomore effort, Thirteenth Step - but an offer to become a permanent member of Queens of the Stone Age proved too tempting for him to turn down.

Lenchantin's replacement was discovered by chance. While at a party at Freese's house on New Year's Eve, Howerdel ran into Jeordie White. When he learned that White had bailed from Marilyn Manson, Howerdel invited him to become A Perfect Circle's new bassist. White plays on about half of Thirteenth Step.

Replacing Van Leeuwen proved somewhat more difficult. Former Nine Inch Nails guitarist Danny Lohner was brought on board, and while he proved to be an ideal creative foil for Howerdel in the studio, it became obvious during rehearsals that the two guitar players' styles did not mesh in a live context. With only weeks to go before A Perfect Circle were to play their first live club shows and join Lollapalooza on tour, Howerdel called Iha to see if he was available and interested in joining the band. Iha agreed and took on the challenge of learning two albums' worth of material and duplicating Van Leeuwen and Lohner's sounds.

Although it was recorded with an ever-revolving lineup, Thirteenth Step sounds more focused and is more engaging than Mer de Noms. While Keenan's distinctive vocal delivery and the walls of crunching, distorted guitars will inevitably draw comparisons to Tool, Thirteenth Step shows that A Perfect Circle are continuing to forge a new voice for themselves. Rather than churn out riffs and power chords, the guitarists build textural, cinematic soundscapes, allowing the bass – which is sometimes multitracked to play three or four different lines – to take on a more predominant, melodic role. "I got to play all over the neck," says White. "I've never played this much bass before. It's made me a much better musician."

As for the songs, they seem to bear out the album title's allusion to 12-step rehabilitation programs. Titles like "Weak and Powerless", "The Noose," and "Gravity" certainly conjure images of addiction, while Keenan's lyrics offer thinly veiled drug references, such as on the band's cover of Failure's "The Nurse Who Loved Me" ("She gives it all to me, pharmacy keys/She acts just like a nurse with all the other guys").

But the album's title, along with the last song's closing line – "I choose to live" – suggests that an optimistic solution, and not the customary plunge into depression's depths, is possible. It is this 13th step – that of getting on with one's life – that the record seems to celebrate. It could very well serve as a metaphor for the band itself, which has emerged from its numerous challenges stronger and reborn. Guitar World sat down with Howerdel, Iha, White and Freese to discuss A Perfect Circle's rise and the making of Thirteenth Step.

GW When referring to the last album and tour, the press often described A Perfect Circle as a side project. The addition of Jeordie and James makes the band look more like a supergroup. Did you bring these guys into the band so people would take the band more seriously?

BILLY HOWERDEL I just went after the musicians that I thought would be best for the band. Whether I've been looking for a girlfriend or a guitar player, my friends have always advised me to visualize everything I wanted; that makes it easy to single out who you want. Then you need to go after them, whether they're available or not. When I thought about the guitar players I wanted in the band, James came to mind more than once. I always thought that he was a great player – and that he'd look good in a long wig. [laughs]

I wasn't worried about finding another guitar player because so much other stuff was going on. I just figured we'd get around to it eventually. But suddenly it was May, then June and then we were in big trouble. We put together a list of people, and James was number nine on the list. [smiles at James] We called the eight guys before him and it didn't work out.

GW James, what were you doing before you got the call from Billy?

JAMES IHA I was involved in various productions. When Billy first called me, I told him that I'd love to do it. I joined the band just a few weeks ago, but it already seems like a long time ago. It's been a short gestation period. I came in too late to play on the record, so I just had to learn their songs. It's great to play with everyone in the band. I have nothing but good things to say.

GW How do the two of you approach the guitar parts? Do you lay out specific roles?

HOWERDEL James is playing the parts that Troy played on the last tour. On the new record some things are a little more challenging to figure out and have never been played by a live band. We've basically had 18 days to figure out how we're going to play these songs onstage. I sent James these embarrassing videos where I was showing him how to play things so he'd know some of the songs before he came out to L.A. But we've spent more time figuring out sounds and how to get the textures to work live. We use a lot more effects for the live stuff. It covers more space and fits in better.

GW Was it difficult to duplicate the textures on the record?

HOWERDEL We created most of the sounds on the record using TDM plug-ins [software-based digital signal processors] with Logic and Pro Tools hardware. I use GRM Tools and Ultra Tools from Wave Mechanics a lot, and there really isn't a hardware equivalent of those effects. You get married to that sound, but then there's nothing you can put in your guitar rig to use those sounds live. I got an Eventide Orville [multi-effect processor], which can make any effect you can imagine, but it's very challenging to program. I had to A/B the sounds from the record with the ones I came up with on my rig. I'm still working it out; it's a work in progress. It sounds pretty good now, but it's going to get better. People should probably wait until we come to town for the second time on this tour. If you like raw sound, come to the first leg. If you want it to sound more like the record, come to the second leg.

JEORDIE WHITE If you liked the club show, you'll love the club show.

GW Some songs on the album sound like they were recorded by a live band rather than constructed track by track.

HOWERDEL A couple of the songs were live run-throughs in the studio. We placed the bass in the middle and planned each guitar to the left and right channels. Josh was in the drum room with a video monitor so we could see him, and we played to a click [track] on the computer. "Vanishing" was done in a single take that way. We just added one overdub of Jeordie's bass to it.

WHITE The studio at Billy's house is set up so you can just plug in and play, although it rarely worked out that way. We made a lot of adjustments as we went along, I was really impressed with Billy's attention to detail on the sounds. He made good use of ProTools and Logic. But we mostly concentrated on getting good performances instead of chopping things up and putting them back together. We didn't do that much editing. We paid more attention to the tones that we recorded. I was surprised by how long we took. In the band I was in before, we'd just go for it. There's not a right way or a wrong way – just two different ways of approaching things.

GW "The Stranger" sounds very loose, like it wasn't recorded with a click track.

JOSH FREESE That's because it doesn't have a drummer on it.

HOWERDEL Danny Lohner did that. We handed him a vocal track and two acoustic guitar tracks, and he created the textural ambience. It was recorded to a click, but we purposely played out of time in three sections. I remember Josh tried to play along to it and asked if we were sure that it was recorded to a click. We recorded it at the Clarion Hotel in Cleveland, which had these ivory bathrooms.

WHITE Les Pauls and ivory bathrooms. Good times.

GW Some of the songs have a thick wall of guitars. Did you do a lot of overdubs?

HOWERDEL We did on the last record. We had things like 16 slide guitars and eight rhythm guitars all playing exactly the same thing. This time it was more basic.

WHITE We had 23 guitars.

HOWERDEL [laughs] There were two guitars and one bass on songs like "The Package" and "Weak and Powerless". "The Noose" was more complicated.

GW Did you simplify things because all those overdubs on the last record were difficult to reproduce onstage?

HOWERDEL At first, yes. When Paz, Josh, Troy and I got together at the end of 2001 to rehearse and brush off the cobwebs, I decided to make the second record more organic than it actually does, but I'm happy with it. I know this sounds like a cliché, but I was very influenced by the White Stripes' [White Blood Cells] record. I had heard all this hype about them and avoided the record, but when I saw their video on Moby's late-night DJ show I really liked them. I loved the video, so I went out and bought their record. I wanted to sound like that.

FREESE That's when Billy decided to upgrade to the Pro Tools HD system. [laughs]

HOWERDEL Actually, I did get Pro Tools HD. At first I thought we'd record everything at the higher resolution, but it became such a pain in the ass that we only recorded one song at 96kHz. We recorded all of the strings at 192kHz, but the got bounced down to 44.1kHz anyway. It sounded great, but the problem was that we couldn't use a lot of the plug-ins we loved at the higher sample rates.

WHITE James and I use the Fostex four-track.

HOWERDEL Jeordie uses his Nokia phone. He just hits the memo pad, send it out to Bob Ludwig for mastering, and he's done.

WHITE I use the built in digital camera for the artwork.

HOWERDEL You just know someone's going to do that one of these days.

GW It sounds like you have a commercial grade studio in your house.

HOWERDEL Even though it's in my house, it's pretty dialed in. It took a long time to set up. It started as a project studio, but I decided to hire an acoustical engineer and it turned into a nine-month construction project. It turned out pretty good in the end. We've already gotten a lot of good use out of it. I first got into computer based recording when I was working with Nine Inch Nails. They were all computer freaks, and I felt like an outsider for not having a laptop and looking at porn all day. I got a laptop…

WHITE And downloaded all the porn.

HOWERDEL …then one day I saw this chick holding a computer and guitar at the same time, and it dawned on me. After that I started working with Guns n' Roses and got them into computers, showing them what I had learned from Nine Inch Nails. I learned more as I worked in their crew. That's also where I met Josh. What I like about computers is you can work at your own pace, and it's so much cheaper in the long run than working with tape.

GW James, you waited a long time after the Smashing Pumpkins dissolved to join another band. What influenced you to accept A Perfect Circle's offer to join them?

IHA I didn't want to join another band at all after Smashing Pumpkins. I have a commercial studio in New York and run a record label, so I was getting more into producing and writing; I was more into being behind the scenes. I really didn't plan on joining this strange juggernaut, but I love the music. We toured with them once in Canada, and I thought they were all supernice guys. It was hard to turn them down.

GW It's interesting that Paz left this band to work with Billy Corgan, and now you're working with her old band.

IHA We've talked about making the switcheroo. But I think I got the better deal. Before this came along I was just building a catalog of songs that I was eventually going to put out myself. But I didn't have any timetable for releasing a new solo album. I was actually just happy to not be in a band for awhile.

GW How does it feel to be back in the role of being just a guitar player?

IHA It's great. Over the last few weeks I've played more guitar than I have in the last two years. My hands are a little traumatized right now. I want to get Jimmy Page's hands. That should help me.

GW How did you go about duplicating the sounds on the records?

HOWERDEL Because we had so little time before we had to go on tour, I put together a rig for James that was similar to what Troy had, and started programming sounds the second day James was here. To cut down on time I just programmed general default patches and we made adjustments as we went along. Troy Van Leeuwen actually came into the rehearsal studio and helped James out with a couple of the sounds. We had an unfortunate accident one day and all of the sounds were wiped out. But the dark times have passed now.

GW It sounds like you still help out with the guitar tech duties. Do you prefer being onstage or behind the stage?

HOWERDEL Playing guitar in this band is probably just as stressful as being a guitar tech. The easy part is going on tour. There is so much uncertainty in making a record; you don't know what's going to happen. You don't really know what's going to happen on tour either, at least in terms of success, but we know it will be fun. The job is more structured. I grew up on the road and spent my whole adult life on tour. It seems foreign to be at home for any extended period of time.

GW All the musicians in this band are talented and well known. Obviously, there will be some downtime when Maynard goes back to work with Tool. How do you plan on keeping the band together?

HOWERDEL I have no false hopes. It would be great to keep working with everyone. The last time almost everyone was involved with other bands, so it was understandable that it would be difficult to keep everyone together. Next time I want to go into the studio and write songs as soon as we get off the road. It took me two and a half years to do this record, which was longer than the first record took, although it is what it is because of that. I spent too much time working out what I thought the album should be ahead of time, then I just had people come in the studio and gave them some direction. Next time I want to collaborate more with everyone. I really like the way "The Package" came together. We went to a rehearsal hall and wrote the song. It came together really quickly because the chemistry was there. We were all talking the same language.

GW Maynard is an essential member of the band. How do you plan on keeping him involved?

HOWERDEL Maynard will be going back to work with Tool next summer, but we have him until then. He could change his mind at any time, though. We really don't know.

IHA That will give me more time to work out the patches for the next tour.

HOWERDEL That's a good idea. I like your thinking.

GW James, you've gone from working with one tall, lanky Billy with a shaved head to another. How does this Billy compare to the other?

IHA This Billy has better posture. I can't really say yet. It's been a crash course and I haven't had much time to think about it. I've had a lot to do in a very small amount of time.

HOWERDEL James and I will be working on some songs soon. Our plan is to spend 10 weeks on tour and 10 weeks off. That will give us time to work on some music together.

GW Jeordie, how does this band vary from working with Marilyn Manson?

WHITE It's a lot easier emotionally and a lot harder musically. This band's music is a little more challenging. Joining A Perfect Circle seemed like the right thing to do. I really get along with everyone, and aesthetically it wasn't too far from what I was doing before. It wasn't like joining N'Sync. It just made sense. I consider these people my peers. Not to discredit anything I've done in the past, but Marilyn Manson was more about attitude, art and lifestyle. A Perfect Circle is more about the music. That's good for me right now. I'm learning. Part of becoming a better musician is admitting that you have a lot more to learn.


Reproducing the multitude of tones and textures on A Perfect Circle's albums in a live setting was no small task. James Iha faced the biggest challenge of all: He walked into the band cold and had to learn parts that had been played by two differnet players on a record -- Thirteenth Step -- he had never heard. And he had to do it all in just three weeks. In addition to playing guitar, Iha was drafted to play an Akai S6000 sampler to perform the string arrangements and unusual ambient textures heard on songs like "The Nurse Who Loved Me."

Billy Howerdel and Iha both play Gibson Les Paul 1960 Custom Classic reissues (Howerdel is also playing several Gibson ES-175s on this tour), and they depend heavily on effects to produce a variety of contrasting sounds. Howerdel's live rack contains several multi-effects units -- including a Lexicon MPX GW2, TC Electronic G-Force and FireworX, Digitech GSP-2101 Artist and EVentide Orville -- while Iha and Jeordie White have just a single Lexicon MPX G2 in their rigs. For even greater tonal variety, Iha uses a Marshall JMP-1 preamp through a Mesa/Boogie Strategy 500, and he employes a DIgital Music Ground Control foot controller to select various presets. Howerdel prefers the growl of a Marshall JMP-100 modified by Dave Friedman of Rack Systems, and he uses an Empirical Labs Distressor compressor to get thick, sustaining studio-quality tones.

Although White played his beloved Gibson Thunderbird bass on Thirteenth Step, eh found its tone a little too warm and thick for live use among the dual Les Paul assault. Instead, he's using Fender Precisions, a Spector NS-2 and a Steinberger Spirit. "I have a 1965 Precision that's really bright and sounds great when played with a pick," says White. "There wasn't one definite bass tone on the record, so I'm taking several different basses with me on the road." White's amp is a Mesa/Boogie Bass 400+. Howerdel, Iha and White all have Korg Toneworks tuners and Shure wireless systems in their racks.