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Building a Mystery 

Forget the MTV-style exhibitionism. A Perfect Circle just wants to play music.

Drama kings: A Perfect Circle's music blends - flamboyance and finesse. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Drama kings: A Perfect Circle's music blends flamboyance and finesse.

Gene Simmons never talked about his favorite breakfast cereal. Robert Plant never explained how he squeezed himself into blue jeans so tight that his bulge became Led Zeppelin's unofficial fifth member. Three decades ago, rock and roll's prime movers all pointedly cultivated an air of mystery about themselves, which made their bands seem larger than life.

That mystique is long gone. We've seen the inside of Missy Elliott's shoe closet, and we know way too much about Fred Durst's mating habits. The only mystery in rock and roll nowadays is how a butt-faced dude like Kid Rock gets to wake up next to Pam Anderson every morning.

A Perfect Circle is one of the few bands on the fringes of the mainstream that still enjoys enigma status. A dark, dramatic alt-rock supergroup founded by Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan, former Tool guitar tech Billy Howerdel, and drummer du jour Josh Freese (who's worked with everybody from Guns N' Roses to Jewel), A Perfect Circle likes to keep folks in suspense. The band often plays on sparsely lit stages, and Keenan's impressionistic lyrics are far removed from the first-person self-flagellation now common in modern rock. A Perfect Circle doesn't spend a lot of time in front of the camera, nor does it really want to get all that acquainted with you.

"In today's day and age, with all the different shows that they have on MTV where every band is dying to show their homes off and be on dating games, it's almost like you get to know these people a little bit too well," Freese says from a tour stop in Atlanta. "They're not interesting anymore, because you see how normal and dorky they are. We've kind of taken a back seat. It's the same with Maynard's other band, Tool. You can't just turn on the TV and see them on Cribs or Behind the Music. They keep all that stuff to themselves. We also like to let the music and the art kind of speak for itself. People have tended to become that much more interested in it, because you can't see us on AT&T commercials."

Even without Carrot Top, A Perfect Circle has taken off remarkably fast. Its lush, locomotive debut, 2000's Mer de Noms, sold more than 1.5 million copies. Grounding Keenan's powerful bellow in swirling guitars and art-pop arrangements yielded a sound that was equally palatable and progressive. With its sophomore album, Thirteenth Step, due in September, the group is now ensconced in a sold-out two-week tour prior to joining Lollapalooza on the West Coast. The brief trek is a chance to road-test new material and break in recent additions Geordie White (formerly Twiggy Ramirez, bassist for Marilyn Manson) and ex-Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha.

"Geordie is a really, really great, confident bass player. And as a drummer, I can tell a good bass player right off the bat. He's been terrific," Freese enthuses. "And James is just a great textural player -- exactly what this band needed. Not just a rock and roll guy, but a guy who can go out and play interesting sounds and bring a heavy touch and a light touch at the same time."

That balance is central to A Perfect Circle's success, but the band struggled after bassist Paz Lanchantin left the group for Billy Corgan's Zwan and guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen bolted for Queens of the Stone Age. A Perfect Circle's sporadic activity -- the band gets put on the back burner when Keenan makes the rounds with Tool, which can last years -- makes it hard to keep a lineup intact. Album-writing isn't much easier.

"A lot of this record was done with just Billy and I, when Maynard was out on the road with Tool and before we had Geordie or James," Freese says of Thirteenth Step. "Then Maynard got off the road, he kind of came back and said, 'God, these songs right here are great; these songs over here I'm not feeling and can't really write anything to; these songs are good, but have to be reapproached.'

"We almost re-recorded the whole second record once Maynard was home, just because he had a lot of good input on it. We'd been holed up in Billy's house for so long, Maynard was a good second opinion, a new ear to walk in and go, 'Okay, you guys have kind of been going crazy down in this basement for the last year; let someone else help steer you a little bit, before you completely lose your minds."

Indeed, A Perfect Circle's moody, enveloping sound contains its share of heady arrangements and Floydian excess. But by tempering artistic aspirations with Keenan's melodic savvy and radio-friendly rhythms, the group has been able to strike a chord with fans of both Slayer and Sigur Rós. Perhaps its defining aspect has been its ability to bridge the gap between the avant-garde and the accessible. It's the same with Thirteenth Step.

"It's an interesting artistic record, without being alienating," Freese says. "At the end of the day, I want people to want to listen to it. I'm not going to go up there and make a bunch of chaotic noise and just say, 'This is art, we're cool, check it out.' It's more like 'How can we make something that's enjoyable to listen to, but not the exact format as everything else that's going on?'

"I shouldn't make this out to be an insanely crazy record -- it's really not," Freese adds with a laugh. "But I think it's a little more interesting and eclectic than the average rock record that's out there right now."

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