Progressive rock supergroup A Perfect Circle has been making headlines for kicking out dozens of fans who've captured their live performances with smartphones, but it's not like fans who get booted can say they were surprised. On the band's current tour, there are signs on the back of each seat warning that taking videos or pictures will, in all caps, "RESULT IN EJECTION."
Despite the hard stance, guitarist and composer Billy Howerdel isn't sheepish about admitting he's guilty of the act in question. About a year ago, he went to see the Cure and recorded a clip with his smartphone, which he intended to show his wife after the show. So he understands wanting to keep a memento, but he still regrets whipping out his cellphone.
"You get home, and the video looks like shit and sounds like shit," he says. "You might not even get through the whole clip or ever watch it again — it's a terrible representation. But that's just my opinion, which is the least important thing; the most important is that you don't annoy the people around you."
Howerdel says the rule isn't specific to A Perfect Circle. For many years, frontman Maynard James Keenan has enforced a strict no-cellphones policy during shows for his other art-rock projects, Tool and Puscifer. Fan feedback has been mostly positive regarding A Perfect Circle's recent run of shows, but Howerdel acknowledges there have been specific instances where a venue's attempts to enforce the policy have been more distracting than cellphone screens.
"We're kind of at the mercy of local security, because our security staff briefs them and then it comes down to the execution of the individual guards involved," he says. "You don't want a flashlight in your face while you're just trying to sit there and watch a show; that's the worst thing I've heard."
Speaking with Inlander ahead of the band's Tuesday night show, Howerdel says that, smartphones aside, the tour has been challenging because he's simultaneously writing the band's forthcoming album — the first since 2004's Emotive, due out next year — and putting in the work necessary to play an arena show every other night.
Writing music while on tour is a mixed bag, Howerdel says. His writing process benefits from already having the musical juices flowing, but still takes long stretches of silence and seclusion for him to settle into a meditative headspace and write songs. (He's a longtime practitioner of Transcendental Meditation.)
"Going down into the meditation, at the beginning you're still kind of aware of the outside world," he says. "Once you get in your flow, you're just steadily working."
Given the many layers of complexity in Howerdel's music, listeners may be surprised to learn that he's never learned to read or write sheet music. How he communicates with his bandmates really depends on each player. For instance, guitarist James Iha (ex-member and co-founder of the Smashing Pumpkins) is more of a visual learner, so Howerdel makes a video of him playing the song's guitar parts acoustically "so he can see where I am on the neck and where the inflections are." Bassist Matt McJunkins, on the other hand, simply listens to the track and sounds out a bassline.
When it comes to lyrics, Howerdel leaves that entirely up to Keenan. Once he's heard the words, he may go back and tweak the instrumental to make sure everything fits thematically, however.
"A lot of times I don't know — or don't want to know — what he's writing," he says. "What I think is interesting, when I take a step back and listen, is that many times there's a duality to what he says. He does try to throw you off with some red herrings and lyrics that are multipurpose. I think that's what makes him special, and one of the best lyricists out there."
Windows of opportunity to work with Keenan tend to open and close quickly. On top of trying to finish Tool's rabidly awaited follow-up album to 2006's 10,000 Days, he's been busy running his winery — Caduceus Cellars in Jerome, Arizona — so Howerdel has to be ready when Keenan has time to work on A Perfect Circle.
"I don't push or pry," he says. "I wait until he gives me a call and says, 'Hey, are you available to do this?' And I say, 'Yes, please.'"
With the timing right, A Perfect Circle has toured hard since reforming in the spring. In October, the band released the album's first single, "The Doomed," which sonically falls right in with the group's multi-textured, often experimental body of work dating back to their debut album, 2000's Mer de Noms. Lyrically, the single references the country's increasingly polarized political, social and cultural climate, with Keenan singing: "Behold a new Christ / Behold the same old horde / Gather at the altering / New beginning, new word."
The band has rolled out a handful of other new songs on tour, including "Hourglass," fan footage of which is (surprisingly) available on YouTube. Maybe Keenan's strict no-phone policy serves mostly as a reminder that A Perfect Circle want their art to be taken seriously. Howerdel says the band works hard to make sure the shows sound and look good, and fans spend good money to see them play. It should be an event worth unplugging for, if only briefly.
"Just be with us — just be in the moment and let go of your silicon addiction," he says. "It's not that hard to put your phone down for 90 minutes." ♦
A Perfect Circle with the Beta Machine • Tue, Nov. 28 at 7:30 pm • $49.50/$69.50 • Spokane Arena • 720 W. Mallon • spokanearena.com • 279-7000