Going in circles and growing up
The band A Perfect Circle is appearing on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” and from the green room, it seems the height of absurdity. A high school basketball team is sitting with Leno -- the incredibly named Nimrods from Watersmeet, Mich. -- and they’ve brought their mascot, an octogenarian in an orange hunting jacket, who comes out and warbles, “Go Nimrods.”
He brings down the house, and the green room erupts. Guest Ben Affleck is walking around slapping everyone on the back.
Somehow, after that, A Perfect Circle and its enigmatic vocalist, Maynard James Keenan, must go on and deliver “The Outsider,” a dark, painful psycho-metal howl completely out of sync with the rest of the show. This is a band uncomfortable with the notion of entertainment, and the camera stays mostly on the writhing Keenan. Afterward, the band goofs with Leno as the guests deliver their customary goodbye en masse.
This is the same singer who fronts the thunderous crypto-metal band Tool? Clearly, Keenan is into something different with A Perfect Circle.
“That’s really, really, really nerve-wracking,” says Keenan afterward, sipping coffee in the NBC commissary in Burbank, his dark eyes drilling in, his shaved head shining. “You just have to have the adrenaline running for it even to come off, so you feel like you’re acting a bit.”
‘It scares me’
That’s clearly not to his liking, but then he instantly flips it around. “Because it scares me, I look at it as a challenge.... Maybe I would enjoy it? I don’t! Now I know for sure.”
It’s this kind of enlightened skepticism that provides the slightest bit of leavening to “Thirteenth Step,” A Perfect Circle’s second album. It’s leavening enough to make the album a giant step from the band’s 2000 debut, “Mers de Noms,” which was denigrated in the press as a Tool side-project.
In truth, “Mers de Noms” was an accidental hit: Tool guitar tech Billy Howerdel had written volumes of riff-heavy guitar songs, his roommate Keenan offered to put vocals on some and, voila, a platinum record that took everyone by surprise.
But where that album dealt in some Tool-like brutality, “Thirteenth Step” conjures a more cerebral presence -- vaguely untrustworthy, slippery, human, like something glimpsed by moonlight. It has hit even more quickly than the debut, already selling more than 700,000 copies since its September release.
The group, which will headline at the Long Beach Arena on Thursday, has created much of that audience with live shows.
“They’re something of a lifestyle band,” says Kevin Cassidy, executive vice president of sales and merchandising for the Tower Records chain. “Because of the credibility that they’ve established in the live format, they reach past what Tool was and get into that alt-rock format.
“These guys, they don’t engage in a lot of music industry tricks, they’re not video-driven, they’re not basing who they are on an MTV video, they’re not involved in a significant amount of radio tricks. They sell the way they do and they’re adored by the fan base because the music speaks for itself and they’re a live force.”
“A Perfect Circle is a much more emotional band,” adds Paul Gargano, executive editor at Metal Edge magazine. “It’s not as cryptic as Tool, it’s not like you’re trying to decode 18 layers of secret messages and ancient philosophies that nobody understands and religious references that nobody gets. A Perfect Circle is about life and problems easier to understand.”
Whereas obscure lyrics are one of the reasons to love Tool, Gargano contends, A Perfect Circle is a bid to connection. “Maynard’s just not one of those people who is going to accept that people love him without understanding what this is about. So APC is the outlet for the other side of his brain.”
A Perfect Circle’s identity is emerging, and part of the reason is the lineup; this time around, the band has evolved into a super-group consisting of Howerdel, Keenan, drummer Josh Freese (the Vandals, Evanescence, Static-X, Guns N’ Roses), former Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha and bassist Jeordie White, who enjoyed a former incarnation with Marilyn Manson as Twiggy Ramirez.
Most of the improvement, however, is in the material. The album steps fearlessly where rock’s heaviest acts dare not tread, into a kind of headphone rock sprinkled with details and a recurring Cure-like drone, and occasionally even an arch prettiness. As one might surmise from the title, the album’s 12 tracks also have a thematic unity.
“We’re using the metaphor of recovery for any one of a multitude of life experiences -- relationships, chemical addiction, behavioral addictions -- abusive, co-dependent, all those behavioral patterns that you’re trying to move through,” Keenan says.
The first single, “Weak and Powerless,” best exemplifies the band’s favored mode of attack: a twitchy vocal seething with barely contained rage builds to a rumbling explosion. But the song doesn’t wallow in pain. It has a resolution. It has a method for arriving at answers.
The album, says Keenan after a pause, is about “just becoming a conscious being. Becoming more self-aware, the process of recovering from your own blind behavior.”
Keenan plays to the absurd. Like doing Leno. He calls this style of work “Ichigo-Ichie,” Japanese for “one moment, one meeting.... It’s all about communicating with the person across from you.”
Besides, A Perfect Circle always reserves the right to get heavy. Keenan is never too far from some painful or twisted take on reality. Like the 13th step, which Keenan says is “a bit of a joke within the [12-step] program.” It means getting away from a dependency on recovery programs and facing a sometimes-weird and sometimes-too-rational world.
A Perfect Circle
Where: Long Beach Arena, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach
When: Thursday, 7:30 p.m.
Contact: (213) 480-3232