Billy Howerdel: 'I'm a Big Believer in Working for Free"

Discuss Maynard and Billy's side project
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Billy Howerdel: 'I'm a Big Believer in Working for Free"

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MisterJazzHands: Could you name 5 albums that influenced your playing and writing style the most?

BH: The first one that comes to mind is Adam Ant's "Kings of the Wild Frontier." I'd say that record has lived the longest for me. It's just really influential for me in terms of style and also the daring of it. It's just that weird hybrid of pirate music and American Indian influence into what became the post punk aesthetic in the late '70s. Siouxsie and the Banshees' "Tinderbox" - that's always been a go-to for me. It's probably one of the spookiest records I've ever heard. Some of the songs on there have such a dense atmosphere. Sometimes when I'm stuck, I'll listen to that. It's like sometimes when you have no inspiration and you go out and look at the moon, that's kind of what that record is for me. There are newer bands that I like. So if it's not "all time" most influential albums, I love the last Lykke Li record. I just think it sounds hauntingly familiar. It's super poppy - I don't mean for it in a bad way but it sounds derivative but I can't quite put my finger on where the melodies are but I feel like I've heard them my whole life. I've played that record to death since it came out last year. Then I'd say the first two Ozzy Osbourne solo records. If I had to pick one, it would probably be "Diary of a Madman." When I first started playing guitar and I got good enough to fumble around and play them poorly, those first two records, I did my best to learn it all the way through. Randy Rhodes has been a huge influence for me, especially when I was starting out. Then I guess the last one would be "Pornography" from the Cure. That was, again, another spooky atmospheric record at the time when it came out. I know nowadays there's such a saturation of whatever you want at the musical ice cream truck. But back in the early '80s there wasn't a lot of places to go where you could hear that. The Cure really tapped into that when nobody else did at the time. That was one of the scariest albums I've ever heard.

There seems to be a theme of spooky, daring, outside the box kind of records there.

Yeah all of them except for the Lykke Li record - which I think is haunting in a different kind of way. But yeah, there's definitely a theme there. I think the stakes are just so high with those records. But those are the records that get me charged and get me out of bed in the morning, musically.

Do you think that haunting musical style of those influential albums is something that you consciously bring to the table in A Perfect Circle and Ashes Divide?

I can't say. I'm sure those things have influenced me to make the music that I do today but I was drawn to those records in the first place so I don't know if it came from inside or not. But I can say that without listening to records like that I doubt I'd make the same music I do today. There is plenty of music of varying moods and styles that have captured my attention but those are the things that really matter to me. I don't stay in a dark place in my thoughts but the most interesting music out there to me is an escape to a beautifully dark place.

Photo courtesy of Anne Erickson

silent caution: What was the first song that you learned all the way through?

When I first started playing guitar, the Cure was one that I would never touch. Elvis Costello was another one for me when I was a kid - it was so far from metal and I just wouldn't touch those things on guitar - I think because I didn't want to pull back the curtain and see what made those songs so special. But then like Ozzy or Randy Rhodes - that stuff was just too enticing to not try to play it, even though it's more challenging. So that was the kind of stuff I went to first to learn how to play - Rush and Ozzy Osbourne. The first song I learned how to play all the way through is really hard to remember. But there is definitely something to be said about learning a song all the way through, at least for me. I still get a little superstitious about learning any of that stuff like scales and modes and chords. I just don't want to get stuck thinking about it.

Did you ever use tabs?

When I started, I loved that. At the time, I really learned by playing by ear then I discovered magazines like "Guitar for the Practicing Musician" was one I remember as a kid that had all these great tabs. I'd always miss the note playing by ear but tabs worked great for songs that I just couldn't crack. I had a little trick that I would use. I had a Sony Walkman and I would take the Line Out and put it into my stereo. But on this particular one if I put the Line Out into the Headphone out and then pull it half way out, it would put the song out of phase. So that's the way I figured out a lot of guitar that wasn't in tabs. Missing Persons with Warren Cuccurullo was a good example. I loved his guitar playing and no one was really transcribing it so I'd pull the headphone lack out half way and you'd hear what is out of phase which is usually anything that is not up to center, so all the keyboards, kick, lead vocal, and snare goes away. It's an interesting way to learn to play songs that don't have tabs. I think that's where I got more into atmospheric and effect oriented guitar. It was really hard otherwise but that was kind of the code-cracker for me.

That's interesting. I'm going to have to try that.

I think it was a happy accident that I stumbled onto back then. Nowadays you can use something called Mid-Side Decoder where the computer will pretty much do the same thing.

What was the first guitar you ever owned?

I bought a Fender Squire Telecaster. It's funny, I don't do too much on social media but I just found the receipt from buying that guitar and put that on there. It was 310 dollars, I'll never forget that. I got it on one of the music stores on 48th street in New York. I wound up selling it when I got more into metal stuff. It was a poor decision. Squires are more affordable but some of them are really great and that one was really great. I sold it to one of the teachers in my high school. Then I went and bought a BC Rich ST3 - the Strat because I wanted a wammy bar and more pickups and I just wanted the versatility. I could only afford to have one guitar so I wanted something that would do more things. I wound up putting different pickups in it and splitting the coils, just thirsty to get into things. But I regretted it - it felt like a downgrade of quality but it was an upgrade in accessibility. Then I wound up stripping all the paint off of it with a belt sander and drilling holes through it and then I started dipping it into liquid rubber, you know that stuff you put on screwdrivers to make the handles. So that guitar is sitting in my storage unit right now just sort of Frankensteined and half an art project. It actually plays OK.

I would imagine that early knack for modding guitars helped you in your career as a guitar tech. Do you ever miss being a tech?

I had a great time doing it. I don't know if I'd want to go backwards but I have a lot of fond memories. Some of my best times of my life were there. When I started out, I didn't know what I was doing, I just had a real lust for it. I soaked up as much information as I could. It was a very coveted profession at the time, I don't know if it still is. No one really wanted to share what it is that a guitar tech did because it was a cool job. I kind of stumbled on to a young band that needed someone to go out for no money. I think it was a 40 dollar per diem. I went around Europe and the US with them. The band finally got dropped. But it's a word of mouth industry and if you're good at what you do you're going to keep working. Luckily for me it kept going.

You must have been good, you worked for some of the biggest names in the US and Europe.

I think I was a good guitar tech. I would want me as a guitar tech. I care, probably too much. I get a little OCD about things being just right.

We had a lot of user questions regarding effects. I know you are an avid user of the Fractal Audio System. Does setting up your Fractal Systems bring you back to those days and allow you to exercise your OCD?

It does, but I kind of get more into the computer these days. I have a Fractal in my rack in my studio. It's a very versatile piece and I really like it. I wound up getting rid of my guitar racks - I had an A and B rig for A Perfect Circle and I boiled it down to that Fractal unit and my original head that I've always used. It can pull off the sound pretty close. I do a lot of feedback interaction with the cab and rolling the volume and when I play through a simulator, I still haven't found one that reacts the same way when I turn down the volume and try to get a certain harmonic out of the feedback from the cab. My amp is a 1978 JMP Super Lead 100.

So you don't use any pedals right now?

I don't, it's all Fractal now. It does everything really well. There are very few things, maybe a sound or two that I think a pedal would have done better. It's not enough to compromise the ease of swapping out a Fractal System. I just use a Bradshaw MIDI Pedal to continuous controllers and that goes right into the Fractal which goes through the loop.

TheGroundZero: When you play live, do you operate the effects on stage or is it automated?

Yes I operate it live but I do have it automated for a couple sounds - my guitar tech was triggering it. Then we just wound up putting it on the lighting rig. A lot of the songs we play to a click even though we don't have backing tracks. Actually I think every song we play to a click. So I take a feed off the DMX lighting rig because I don't want to be tethered to the pedal board. It's such a tap dance on the pedal board with a lot of those songs and sometimes you just want to cut the leash and go. But I also don't want to unlearn it. I think everybody has that muscle memory and when you lose it, it's hard to relearn it. Playing a song and hitting the right pedals at the right time is a great skill and I don't want to completely atrophy that ability.

Mongazzo: If you had to take one amp, one effect, and one guitar to a last minute gig, what would you pick, and why?

It would be my main guitar, which is a 1960 Classic Reissue Les Paul that's pretty modded and customized. It's got Tom Anderson pickups on it and the headstock is on at the wrong angle. I've actually talked with Gibson about a signature model and we might revisit that. I just talked with somebody two months ago about it. So it would be that guitar, the rest would depend on the band but if it's quick and dirty and we need to get there lightly, it would be my little Gibson GA15RV amp and probably just the little Line 6 delay pedal - the little green one. I think that would be a pretty good setup.

blocsox90: What projects are you currently working on at the moment?

The past couple months I've been writing for and with other people. I've never really done that, I've always just kind of written music for myself. I've connected with a few people; for example there's a guy at a record company that I've become friends with and he's been showing me this really cool band that he wants my aesthetic on. So it's kind of entering that mixing and adding production onto the record while I'm mixing it. I've also been co-writing stuff with some people. Those are kind of some seeds that I'm planting right now. Nothing has really been finished out but I've got a bunch of stuff underway with different writers. So it's really interesting, working with top line writers. I've worked with some of the most talented singers that I've ever met in this world - people who are just idea factories. It's been really interesting.

sinterpol: What album are you most proud of helping produce?

With A Perfect Circle, it was being in the band and producing so you have to be able to switch hats. It's hard to be driving the car and be filming the car from 100 feet away. So you have to switch up your mindset about how you approach those things. That first APC record has a fondness in my heart. It just came together with such excitement. It was when everyone wanted to be there. Then as time goes on you work with a lot of musicians who have done things for a long time and they just have other ventures and are just not as interested and not as invested. It's so nice to think back to when everyone really loves and is hungry for music. So I'd say that first APC record was a very proud moment for me.

Photo courtesy of Tim Mosenfelder

rnx2101: Are you still 100% invested in APC, will we see some new material?

I'm 100% invested in it. But it's a band and I don't control that ship. Maynard has a lot of other ventures. You can see where his passion lies. He's got Puscifer, which I think he focuses most of his attention on, and his wine. Also Tool is working on some new stuff, so that should be great. So if someday he becomes interested, I will be there 100%.

Aryan Death Man: How does the songwriting process work within the scope of APC?

I write the music and Maynard does the melodies and lyrics.

mcshai1985: Will we see another Ashes Divide album anytime soon?

Yes, that's something else I've been working on. Over last summer, I did some writing and revisiting and reworking and putting some songs into different folders. Some of the songs I had originally written for Ashes Divide have gone out to different projects. I wrote the bulk of a new record last August. I just started working with a singer and I just tracked with her last week. We're still trying to see where we're going to go with it. But yeah, I definitely plan on putting out a record. I've been a broken record myself saying that a new record is going to come out. When it's finished, that's when it's coming out. It's very different than anything I've ever done in an exciting way, to me. It's much more atmospheric and synthetic. When I listen back to the first couple versions of the first record, the new material sounds much more in line with that. It's interesting, I'm glad I made the record I did and I'm very proud of "Keep Telling Myself It's Alright." But this record is a little more in the spirit of where Ashes Divide was going to be in the first place. It's like a prequel.

Stary2: I actually learned this from one of our readers, you did the soundtrack for the Jak-X Combat Racing video game. What was your experience like writing the soundtrack for that game?

Yeah, I wrote songs for that and then had people do remixes and remakes of those songs. I think I wrote four keystone songs and then had other people go do their version of it in a new kind of way. Then we put it together into 20 songs that made that video game. There are a couple of those are really cool. They had to be a certain way for the game - basically you're a little animated character shooting up sh-t. But you know notes are notes and it's all in the way that you present them in your production whether you want the audience to laugh or cry and I think there are some really good notes on that soundtrack that could get dug up in the future.

Stary2: Would you consider scoring films or composing music for other mediums in the future?

I'm scoring a short movie right now. It's just a short for a friend. I've been talking about doing that for a while. I'm going to start slowly easing into it. I think it's just a matter of finding the right director who likes what I do and there's that mutual respect right off the bat, then I'd be into it. I wouldn't be interested in just going out into the field and seeing what people want and becoming just another composer. I'm very interested in cinematic music, it's 51% of the picture, and I'd be really excited to work with someone who would be excited to work with me.

I would imagine that making music for those non-traditional mediums would be a good exercise in expanding your creative space.

What I did for the video game was pretty straight ahead rock songs. They weren't very experimental. Many were upbeat and electronic in spirit and nature. I have a much broader musical palate now in 2015 than I did in 2006. That's what's exciting about working with all these different people and doing all these writing sessions, I'm able to pull from a lot of different places and it's nice to not just stay in one lane. That's where the film stuff is interesting to me. Writing music for a specific purpose can get you outside of your comfort zone and it gets you out of a stagnant lane that you've been going down for a long time.

I'm not sure how much specifics you can divulge on what the collaborative projects you are working on but is it music that is in the same vein as APC or Ashes Divide or is it something way out in left field?

Some of it is way out in left field but it's one of those "your chocolate fell into my peanut butter" happy accident situations (That was a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup commercial. I hope that got through). It's like taking two things that you'd think would never work together and making them work together. That's the stuff I'm most excited. I'm going to put something up on my website - I've never really done much with that and I'll put a link on my social media eventually that will list all the new stuff that will be coming out. Right now the record is not done yet and I want to make sure it's fully underway before I talk about it publicly. But I'll say this; I'm super excited about this one kid from Florida. That will be the clue for later. I think he's gonna rule.

Abacus11: What advice would you give to songwriters and musicians who are trying to get their music out there without major label support?

I'm a big believer in working for free. I did that most of my life. I just never worried about the money because I had somewhat of a day job - being a tech. Then I could just kind of do whatever I wanted with music because I didn't have high expectations for it. Whatever came along, I dove into. If you have a good work ethic and you're open to learning, I think that's what people want. I'm always looking for someone like that to work with. Someone who had an opinion but is not bull headed about it. If you have that mutual respect, you can accomplish great things. You can always go out and look on a message board for college and find a film to score for free - get your name out there. Like right now I'm scoring a film for a friend of a friend - it's not something I would normally do but it has been a great learning experience for me. I'm not making any money on it. I would never ask him for anything on it. So my advice would be to diversify because you never know what your profession will turn in to.

Interview by Justin Beckner (C) 2015 ... _life.html
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