Billy Howerdel on British New Wave & the Making of His Second Solo Record

Photo by Frazer Harrison / Getty Images

Across four albums with A Perfect Circle, Billy Howerdel has established himself as one of the foremost guitarists and composers in the heavy alternative scene. While it’s possible to detect traces of goth and art rock in A Perfect Circle’s music, with his second solo album—the first released under his own name—the guitarist draws on the influence of the artists who provided the soundtrack to his teenage years.

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What Normal Was

What Normal Was takes Howerdel back to the vibrant British New Wave when the likes of Depeche Mode, The Cure, and Echo And The Bunnymen transformed the sound and image of pop music. Growing up in New Jersey, Howerdel couldn’t find those records on the shelves in the local mall.

Fortunately, his appetite for the ground-breaking sounds coming out of the UK could be sated at Sound Exchange, a record store in a neighboring town, for those willing to brave the judgmental employees behind the counter. “They had a snobby group of teenagers working there that always scoffed and rolled their eyes when you asked for any record because it wasn’t as cool as what they were into at that moment,” says Howerdel.

What Normal Was marks a significant stylistic departure from Howerdel’s 2008 solo debut released under the name Ashes Divide, Keep Telling Myself It’s Alright, which fit comfortably alongside A Perfect Circle’s heavy alternative vibe with contributions from Josh Freese, Danny Lohner, and Concrete Blonde’s Johnette Napolitano.

Now, even though he’s reunited with many of the contributors from his first solo release, Howerdel moves away from the alt-metal of APC and Ashes Divide to give full voice to his formative influences with a bold mix of New Wave, pulsating synth-pop grooves, and angsty post-punk.

You’re from New Jersey, yet the sound of What Normal Was recalls ‘80s British new wave and early electronic pop music?

I’ll say thank you to that! The most influential music was coming out of Britain in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s for me, especially the early ‘80s.

What were you listening to?

I got into The Cure early enough where it was Faith and Seventeen Seconds. I had older friends in the neighborhood who got me into what I would consider cool music—not just the terrestrial, mainstream radio stuff that you heard, which was just Led Zeppelin and The Beatles, Rolling Stones. That’s all great—mad respect—but it wasn’t something that turned me on, and this stuff did.

Killing Joke… Echo And The Bunnymen… I was really big into Elvis Costello—you might not find that it fits into the inspiration for this record, but I’ve always been inspired by his songcraft. He just seemed so fearless. I don’t go down as many lanes as he goes down, but I was always inspired by his quality of output.

But the stuff I really listened to—Siouxsie And The Banshees, Cocteau Twins—that’s the music I’ve listened to all my life, starting out from when I could make my own decisions about music, from age 11 to 14.

These bands were part of the musical landscape in the UK. Were they on the radio in the US?

My sister went on a business trip and got me Three Imaginary Boys. I didn’t know anyone else that had that. Then you gravitate to the other kids who are into this stuff, then the curation list grows, you find the record store that deals in this thing.

They had this whole culture around this radio station and there’s actually a documentary about it that I’m in. I’m in it for a quick second—miss it if you blink—but WLIR was breaking many artists that weren’t in America yet. Adam And The Ants, Siouxsie, The Cure, even U2—tastemakers took it and ran with it across the country. I’m a young teen sitting in a bedroom listening to a clock radio, but I did feel part of something unique and not huge but certainly a special group of music fans that I wanted to be a part of.

Billy Howerdel - "Selfish Hearts"

Some of the sounds of the album suggest the influence of electronic synth-pop pioneers like Depeche Mode?

I would say that song "Enjoy The Silence" really messed me up and influenced the first Ashes record. I love that song. I remember hearing that in 2006 as I’m listening to things to get inspired for the record, and I go ‘What the hell’s the point in writing any song because this one already exists?’

That and the song "Precious." As far as lyrics go, it’s insane. I remember that really tripping me up and leading me to making that record. I probably felt like I had something to prove. I was still trying to figure out who I was as a singer, and I feel like now the decision to go with my name makes more sense.

This was going to be the second Ashes record up until a few months ago—we made a group decision with my manager and my agent and friends, and [co-producer] Danny Lohner and I were talking about it. It just felt more personal and it’s more what I would have done had I figured it out earlier. Even singing in my own register, it’s more like my voice than me playing a character. Every singer I guess has a character they’re putting on of sorts—I certainly do on this record, but less so than the first Ashes record.

What vibe were you after for this album?

Eyes closed, I was imagining Siouxsie Sioux hanging out with Syd Barrett—what was the dingy club in London where all this stuff took off? It was so interesting, the late ‘70s into the ‘80s, especially when I was a young teenager, music changed so quickly there and then. That’s the culture I found my head in if I look back. At the time I couldn’t have identified that, but thinking about it now, there was something so alluring about that era. I guess it was a pendulum swing and a reaction to saccharine sweet pop, or maybe world events and politics—the Thatcher and Reagan era.

What Normal Was has a deep streak of melancholy. Do you find there’s a release and catharsis in downbeat music?

For sure. If it is clearing in some way, it can help you get to other things. You don’t want to stay in the down state—you never want to stay in any state, you want to move through states, that’s what I find. Too much of anything and there’s no contrast. You can’t keep just having cotton candy, it’s going to make you feel sick after a while, even though it’s delicious on the first taste.

Billy Howerdel - "Free and Weightless"

When did you put the album together?

Is it still boring to talk about COVID? The record was tracked before it hit—the bulk of the music was recorded at the end of 2019—and I really wanted to have it out. May 2020 was the release. As we started mixing in March, the world went to pause, and so did our mixing. I really got to dial these things in where I wanted them and that’s not always the case. You don’t always get that chance.

Matty Green who mixed the record was so incredibly talented and gracious with his time. Because of COVID, we worked remotely. He would mix and I would listen in real time in my studio. It was a really great process, you’re always learning. I’ve been doing this for a long time, but I learned a lot about making this kind of record. It was exciting and I can still listen to it and enjoy it—it's not a lot of work to listen to this record.

For me that’s the measure of my own success—if I can put it on and hear it like any other record, not look at it like the thing I do for work. I can put [What Normal Was] on and stand behind it, so I feel fortunate like that.

There’s a dance music or almost disco feel to some of the grooves on the album.

"Let The Music Play" by Shannon has to be one of my favorite songs. And as a kid, somehow that fit squarely on a mixtape with everything else I listened to. It sat next to Siouxsie And The Banshees and anything I had. When people were just discovering what electronic music could be, but it still had connective tissue into post-punk and rock—that was the most interesting time in music to me.

On first listen it sounds like you used a drum machine, but most of the album features Josh Freese on drums, right?

The only song that he didn't play on is "EXP." I programmed that one and kept it that way. I play drums badly on a song called "Bring Honor Back Home," but there was something charming about it, so we kept it. I even asked Josh to re-track it, he refused. He’s like, ‘No, there’s something there.’ Then this kid Tosh Peterson played on a couple of songs—half of "Beautiful Mistake" and "Ani." It was nice to play with great drummers, and working with Josh again felt like being back at home.

Billy Howerdel - "The Same Again"

Josh knows how to do that human drum machine thing because of his work with Devo and NIN.

Exactly. He can make your drum machine parts sound human or vice versa. I love it when people don’t know if its samples. Even the drummer who’s playing with us now, this kid Greyson Nekrutman—if you don’t know him, check him out, an incredible 19-year-old jazz drummer—he thought it was all samples too and then as I gave him the tracks, you hear the cymbals and hi-hats and everything breathing. It’s why it doesn’t sound sterile. I like that it’s a little confusing. It's like, 'Are these guitars or keyboards?'

Even Danny Lohner who helped me make the record—I’m using Logic so I’m in front of the computer the whole time, and he’s sitting on the couch helping me get to the bottom of some lyric passage. He has great musical ideas, but even as he listens back to the record, he’s like, ‘Is that a guitar or is that a keyboard?’ That’s my proudest moment. If I can confuse someone who worked on the record, and if I can confuse Greyson who’s a great drummer who couldn't tell whether or not it was played by a human—those are good red herrings that I want to throw out into the world.

Who’s in the live band besides Nekrutman?

Danny Lohner is going to play guitar. He’s going to take some of the pressure off me so I can concentrate on singing, I’ll play guitar and sing. Kevin Maher—he’s the lead singer of a band called Fake Shark, Canadian guy, lives in Vancouver—he’s got a great voice and I wanted a really strong background vocal. He’s going to be playing bass on this. Nylo [Landis] is a girl I met online, we haven’t met in person yet as of this phone call. We’ve talked on the phone many times and we’ve been trading files and doing Facetime sessions.

Did you feel any nerves about stepping outside your comfort zone of A Perfect Circle’s format with two guitars, bass, and drums?

Honestly, the only thing I’m nervous about is that people aren’t going to hear it. If I have to be honest about it, no—I can stand behind it, I feel good about it. It’s the boring stressful ordeal of figuring out, 'Okay, how are you going to market yourself?'

I’d rather make music and perform music. Some of it is fun, doing artwork is great. But we’re at that crush time of getting all the assets, promotional photos, pictures, visualizers, and videos, but that stuff's real work, I have to say. I love it, but it is real work because it’s always hard deadlines. I think, 'Oh man, I just can’t wait to get back and make more music,' but I just can’t wait to perform these things first and foremost—getting that energy and sharing it. I don’t really feel nervous about the reception. Maybe I should feel more nervous, I don’t know.

Billy Howerdel - "Bring Honor Back Home"

Do you write constantly?

Yes, unless I'm in this mode. Everything now is in service to the tour, but normally, yeah. I’m always trying to stumble upon something, but I don’t go in and start writing at nine in the morning. I did try and do that, where it’s a regimented schedule, and I think there’s some value to it. It seems so icky to me to do that, but I think there is a development that’s important that can happen from that.

For me, the best things always come by accident and hopefully they come somewhat often. They’re usually seeds that get planted. I could hang up on this call and go do something on the piano, record it on my phone, it’s 20 seconds long and it turns into a song—it’s just the way it works. I have a bank account of songs. They seem to grow after a time of sitting there because when I listen to them one or two years later, sometimes they can be surprising, so that’s the best part. You can almost collaborate with yourself if you can wait long enough.

Is there anything in the works for A Perfect Circle?

There are always things in the works for my little bank account of songs. I’m building up ideas to show Maynard, and it wasn’t time yet to do it. When the time is right, we’ll get together. I like to be prepared with some material, just in case. I’m not really much for riffing in the room or jamming, I usually have a pretty well-defined song or idea to present. I feel pretty good about when we get back into that, when time allows—he’s on tour with Tool and about to go out with Puscifer. We’re busy. There will be something there, but right now my head is here.

"What Normal Was" is available now. You can preorder the vinyl record here, expected to ship this fall.

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