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So You Want to Be a Rock Star (Part 2)

Steve Appleford is a regular contributor to Calendar

You can understand why Maynard James Keenan is exhausted, collapsing on a couch in a North Hollywood rehearsal studio. It’s not easy being a star in two rock bands--or at least trying to be.

Keenan is best known as the singer and lyricist for Tool, a punishing hard-rock outfit whose dark angst appeals to such a narrow young male demographic that it can sell a million copies of an album yet not make a blip on the mainstream pop radar screen.

In his world, however, Keenan is as revered as such better-known figures as Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor and Rage Against the Machine’s Zack de la Rocha.

Now Keenan, 35, has another band, A Perfect Circle. It’s not a side project, he insists, but a second, serious, full-time endeavor--and he’s thrown himself into the project over the last year with all the intensity that his commitment implies.

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The goal isn’t to crack that wider rock world, he says, but simply to find another outlet for his emotions. With Tool, the music is relentlessly bleak, leaving little room for the kind of emotional subtleties he’s after here.

Keenan’s teaming with guitarist-composer Billy Howerdel in A Perfect Circle widens the musical playing field by offering the kind of seductive hard-rock melody lines that have helped bands such as Metallica reach beyond the core hard-rock crowd.

“It opened up possibilities for me,” Keenan says of working with Howerdel. “I can open up and explore something personal with myself that I really haven’t before.”

The rock establishment has certainly taken notice of what’s going on with Keenan, because A Perfect Circle could reach a wider rock demographic. The band’s debut album, “Mer de Noms,” won’t be released by until May 23, but there’s already a considerable buzz about the group.

“There was more [record label] interest in this band than any I’ve seen come up in Los Angeles in years,” said Peter Paterno, an attorney who represents A Perfect Circle and who has worked with such groups as Guns N’ Roses. “One reason is you don’t have bands with this quality of music and with such a commercial pedigree. Tool fans have been waiting years to hear something new from Maynard.”

Virgin Records signed A Perfect Circle after a major bidding war, and the group has landed the opening spot on Nine Inch Nails’ current arena tour.

Its first single, “Judith,” is already being played at L.A.'s influential KROQ-FM (106.7). While Tool has earned some significant airplay on KROQ, the sound of A Perfect Circle may be more immediately applicable to its “modern rock” formula. Another coup for the band: getting director David Fincher (“Seven”) to shoot the “Judith” video, currently in progress.

“Most hard rock gets the job done on the purely visceral level,” says KROQ station personality Jed the Fish. “Here’s a band that says anger is not enough. And mixing something sensitive with the wild makes it artistic and not just aggro. That’s important. That’s what you need to do to be more than just hard rock.”

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Keenan’s dual citizenship puts the singer in a virtually unprecedented position for a rock star. Key members of best-selling acts often embark on solo projects but rarely attempt a separate-but-equal band.

Isn’t this a train wreck waiting to happen?

If A Perfect Circle connects with rock fans as strongly as Virgin Records hopes, Keenan might find it hard to walk away from that momentum and return to Tool--a notoriously slow-working outfit whose last album came out in 1995.

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Keenan dismisses that scenario, suggesting he’s so committed to making a new Tool album that he is “ready to communicate through Fed-Ex to write stuff [with Tool]” while on tour with A Perfect Circle.

“I’m fully prepared to write on the road,” says Keenan, speaking quietly after a long day of rehearsals. “There’s plenty of time to do this project.”

But what do his cohorts in Tool have to say?

Nothing, it turns out--the other members had no comment for this story. But a spokeswoman for the band’s label, Volcano (formerly Zoo Records), expressed no alarm at all. “We wish Maynard the best of luck with this project,” said Gayle Fine. “We don’t see any conflict.”

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Under his timetable, Keenan will tour with A Perfect Circle for most of the year, then switch hats and make the Tool album and tour with that band.

For now, however, Keenan just seems delighted that the new album is about ready to hit the stores. Two years ago, the music of A Perfect Circle amounted to little more than scattered songs and sounds Howerdel was recording in his North Hollywood garage.

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If Keenan comes to A Perfect Circle with hard-rock superstar credentials, his partner’s only connection to stardom was as a guitar technician, tuning and tinkering on tours with such bands as Nine Inch Nails, Fishbone and Tool.

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While he did aspire to take his own music to the public, Howerdel says the experiments in writing and recording would have continued with or without the support of a record label.

“I enjoy making the music and listening to it,” says Howerdel, 29, a self-taught guitarist who first picked up the instrument as a 17-year-old in West Millford, N.J.

“And if that’s what it was, OK. But it didn’t slow me down. The thing that slowed me down was working for other bands on tour. At one time it was really interesting, but as time went on, I really wanted to get this done. The last job I was on, it seemed like it could go on forever, and I would never do this.”

For that reason, he agreed to a gig on a Tool tour three years ago only if he were allowed to bring his recording gear. It was on that tour that Keenan first heard Howerdel’s music, and the singer was immediately drawn to its emotional core.

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“It seemed really emotional,” Keenan says. “There were a lot of elements that I responded to, where I could explore shadow aspects of myself.”

Soon the pair was collaborating on a casual level, which intensified as the delay between Tool albums continued. That delay was due in part to contract differences with the band’s label, Volcano Records.

Then, last August, the still-unnamed A Perfect Circle performed at a benefit for ailing Circle Jerks singer Keith Morris at the Viper Room. The new band had never played the songs live before, and Keenan had to read his lyrics from a sheet of paper. But the experience was enough to turn the project into a serious endeavor.

“Ever since that night it’s been a furious 100% commitment on my part,” Howerdel says. “I put everything else besides this project aside. It became my entire focus. And it’s gone really fast. In the last six months we’ve gotten a tremendous amount done.”

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As he sits with Keenan, Howerdel seems as drained as his bandmate. It’s as if they are both saving energy for what’s ahead.

In a few hours both would begin a six-day video shot for “Judith.” It’s only the start of a busy year, during which A Perfect Circle will follow the Nine Inch Nails gig with tours through Britain, Europe, Japan and Australia before returning to the U.S. for its own headlining tour.

The band also includes drummer Josh Freeze (until recently working with Axl Rose on the resurrected Guns N’ Roses), bassist Paz Lenchantin and guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen (formerly with Failure).

One indication of expectations for the band is that Virgin Records vice-chairman Nancy Berry signed the band to the label herself. She admits the contract negotiations with Volcano regarding Keenan were unusually complicated because of Keenan’s Tool commitments, but she expects few conflicts between the two acts.

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“They have everything worked out, the timetable for both parties,” Berry says. “Obviously his partners in Tool understand he needs his time for A Perfect Circle, and obviously Maynard is going to give his time to Tool when that time comes.

“That time’s not here right now. We’re not anticipating any problems. And if I thought that was going to be a real issue ,then obviously we would have had more concerns about signing the band.”

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A few nights later, A Perfect Circle is on stage at the Key Club, showcasing its music for a packed record-industry crowd.

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Keenan is semi-disguised, wearing a long black wig over his familiar shaved head. But there is no changing that voice: rich, throaty, weighted with portent, a sound ideally suited to the heavy rhythms now rumbling behind him on stage.

While there is much in A Perfect Circle’s music to distinguish it from Tool, particularly in the layering of sonic details, some of the volume and tension on “Mer de Noms” will be comforting to Tool fans. The first moments of the song “The Hollow” rumble with the same kind of heavy beats and rhythms, accented by Keenan’s crucial vocal tone.

But elsewhere, such as in the song “3 Libras,” A Perfect Circle travels far beyond Tool territory, with crisp acoustic guitar blending into the bombast. Keenan sees Tool and the new band as utterly separate entities, as venues for different styles of hard rock.

If Keenan’s new role as the frontman in two active rock acts is going to work, coordination will mean everything. His bandmates in Tool are expecting his presence later this year. So time is short.

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“We don’t have the luxury of going through the club scene and building an audience,” he says of A Perfect Circle. “We have to kick-start it and go the extra mile to make sure people really understand we’re serious about this.”

Tool fans will have to be patient. For Keenan, at least, the waiting is over. “I can’t wait to get on the road,” he says. “It will be like a vacation to go play shows.”

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A Perfect Circle opens for Nine Inch Nails, Arrowhead Pond, 2695 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim, June 6, 8 p.m. $29.50-$45. (714) 704-2500.

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