Billy Howerdel’s new album, What Normal Was, distorts the area between guitar and synths to an optimum level. This cohesive record reflects the kinds of music that got him electrified as he grew up. Howerdel is in the throes of his tour and even with mishaps, he is thrilled to be playing the music that separates himself from previous work.
mxdwn: How has the tour gone thus far being that it is the first shows ever for this solo project?
Billy Howerdel: Well, it’s kind of a fast and furious process getting ready for. I think we’ve had many hurdles this time, more than I’ve ever experienced in my many years in this business. So, I’ve cried wolf many times saying it’s busy getting ready for a tour before. In general, this record is more complex than anything I’ve ever done, so getting it to represent live has been tricky and challenging. We’ve also had other major hiccups, like my bass player not being able to get in the country. He was stuck in Canada for a visa-missing-signature problem that held him up for a few weeks. So, we had to find a replacement for him last minute. Many things like that have happened along the way. We’re six or seven shows in and it feels good playing, every day grows and gets tighter and it’s just us discovering who we are as a band.
mxdwn: This solo album, What Normal Was, is less guitar-centric than some of the previous albums you’ve done in the past. What led you to go in that direction for this album?
BH: That’s kind of where it started taking shape as it started to become more synth-heavy, I started to really tighten the screws down in that direction. What got me into guitar in the first place—or the kind of guitar I play—were bands that blur those lines between synths and guitar. Missing Persons is probably a very good example of that. Warren Cuccurullo was a guitar player I really admired growing up and once I figured out what he was playing, that’s just the lane I wanted to go down, and I kind of blurring those lines.
mxdwn: Was it difficult to combine the powerful guitar riffs you play with the more electronic feel that you created for this album?
BH: Yeah. I mean, I don’t even know if there are powerful riffs on this record. I would say it’s kind of what I would tap into with APC and certainly on the first Ashes record, but for me, guitar is sort of a spontaneous first impression instrument. I don’t practice a lot, I don’t play a lot outside of writing so when I do pick up a guitar it’s usually for the purpose of having it as some kind of melodic element that’s at the beginning of a song and just adds on to. I don’t usually force it too hard if that makes sense.
mxdwn: What made you go with putting out this album under your name versus Ashes Divide?
BH: It was going to be Ashes up until recently, there are a few things that took place. There was my birthday dinner with some friends of mine who had solo records, that after hearing the record, really encouraged me to use my own name. They all have solo records out, they were just kind of giving the pros and cons of it all and it just seemed to make sense. I think the driving comment for me was from my friend, Greg, who’s the singer in The Dillinger Escape Plan. He said, “when you sing on this record it sounds like when you leave me a message on my answering machine as opposed to the first record, which is maybe a different character.” These songs are different enough from that first Ashes record that I thought it warranted a project name change. I wasn’t going to go behind another monogram again, so I just thought this was the time.
mxdwn: Do you enjoy writing songs where you can decide entirely what they should be, or do you prefer working in an environment where you share that responsibility with other musicians or artists?
BH: Typically on my own, that’s kind of always been my experience. I mean, I can do it (in a group setting) and a few years ago I started doing a few writing sessions with top-line writers, which is basically when someone comes up with lyrics and melodies on the fly to your music. You are kind of doing a speed-dating round and that was an interesting process, but my process until then had been to write it first and present it to Maynard for A Perfect Circle, or if I’m on my own then I’m just in my own little incubator. I guess where my strength comes from is using that place.
mxdwn: What led you to begin the album with “Selfish Hearts?”
BH: The sequence is important, the order of songs. I’ve worked on it for a long time and no matter where I put that song it really did always fall first. It didn’t feel right even breaking the record up with it somewhere else. This is now out of an almost creative mode and into a business head. I just think it’s a really short song, and it just felt like a good palate cleanser. It’s almost like okay, I am going to mix up the fact that you might not know where I’m coming from. This is giving you a very clear flag warning that we’re not in the same territories I used to be in from stuff you’ve heard me do before.
mxdwn: What was the reason behind releasing “Poison Flowers” before the rest of the album?
BH: Maybe the opposite reason as to why “Selfish Hearts” is in the beginning. I think, for me, it probably had the most connected tissue to what I’ve done before. It’s a longer song that could live on its own a little bit, hopefully without someone burning out on it. I knew that song was going to be out for a good month before anything else. There are many factors that go into why I release something first or as a single, and these weren’t really necessarily released as singles. I mean, in the classic sense of singles, I guess “Free and Weightless” was our first single and everything else has been kind of like a supportive track. It’s a different world, different time. I grew up listening to albums, so it’s an interesting hurdle to get over, to fill people’s appetite and the way they consume art now. It’s just low attention span playlists, not really paying attention to a whole record. I’m aware that’s how many people are. I think there’s enough of the population, luckily, that the pendulum swings back the other way. People that appreciate the art of making an album in its entirely and listening to that because there is a purpose to it. I just try to make a complete album, not just a few strong songs and a bunch of filler. Releasing multiple songs was to hopefully get people engaged in the whole sound of the record and then intrigued enough to go pick it up.
mxdwn: Is there a muse behind the lyrics of “Followers?”
BH: Yeah, but not that I would really talk about. There are a lot of times there are songs that have multiple people or situations inspiring them, and that’s another one for all personal relationships and sometimes a combination of more than one. I’m trying to cover bases, so I don’t completely break down on stage things. I have to kind of confuse myself a bit.
mxdwn: There was a 14-year gap between A Perfect Circle’s Emotive and Eat the Elephant. Is the band working on material for a new album or is it too soon to consider doing that?
BH: I’m always working on music, so when that time comes, when Maynard and I get back together, we’ll look at some of those things I’m writing. But, the pandemic has put so many false starts within a lot of what we do. Maynard was just out with Tool and now out with Puscifer, so he’s trying to pick up pieces of everything that he’s doing and same with me. I’ve pushed this record back so many times, so we’ll see when that opens up and we’ll kind of revisit, but no hard plans.
mxdwn: Do you have a song on the album that you like performing the most?
BH: Maybe “Follower.” It’s funny because it wasn’t one I would think to make for the record, but I don’t know, maybe “Ani” or “Follower.” I don’t know, it’s so new in the process that nothing is really mundane at this point. It’s always still like: okay, we still need to tighten this down a little bit more. They are still in live discovery mode.
mxdwn: Has working in A Perfect Circle influenced what you’re choosing to do in your solo career?
BH: Maybe. The sound I got from A Perfect Circle has been defined and this album is much more of a look back at the music I really grew up getting excited about in the earliest days of age, in my early tween/teen years. So, it’s a bit of a homage to that era and also almost a time capsule album to send back to my young self to try and hope to impress. It’s kind of the trajectory of where this started.
mxdwn: Do you think that you would come out with new music under Ashes Divide again? Or do you like having it under your name?
BH: No, I think what was Ashes is now just some of our name, so they’ll just kind of be swallowed up by this.
mxdwn: When you first started working as a guitar tech, did you have any specific moments or people that influenced you in ways that you still carry to this day?
BH: Yeah, many for sure, but I think Trent Reznor is the strongest influence as far as work ethic goes. What he expected from everyone else was what he could contribute himself, which was a lot that was apparent really early on, people who were not just phoning it in, they’re there to make whatever you’re doing the best it can be. If I was a guitar tech, I’m there to be the best one I can be. I think everyone needs to be the best they can, whether you’re a barista or you’re solving quantum physics problems. If you’re there, you have be fully in it and feel better from it, no matter what you’re doing. I think that he was inspiring in that way for me, musically and technically too. Not only could he write the songs with you, he knew how the software worked or the algorithm and so I am trying to kind of adopt that.
Photo Credit: Marv Watson, Raymond Flotat