Maynard James Keenan travels light on the road. For the last 12 years, his main companion has been Miho, a tiny Yorkie currently asleep in his trailer backstage at Coachella, hours before A Perfect Circle hits the stage. Keenan's history with the California desert music festival goes all the way back to its debut in 1999, when Tool headlined the second night, and APC opened the fest as the very first band to ever play the main stage.
Right now, Keenan is just trying to get his dog to perform a trick. "Miho! Miho! Hippies! Hippies!" he calls over to the dog, who sits up but just stares. Keenan shrugs, as Miho lays back down. "She's not going to do a trick for you. I don't care. Ruin my joke!"
A Perfect Circle's Coachella set on Sunday was only the second show of the band's tour supporting their long-awaited fourth album, Eat the Elephant (out Friday). They will be back for weekend two, but right now Keenan is trying to catch a little of the fest on the video feed into his trailer while he can. "I'm probably going to take a nap, get up, stretch," he says of his routine. "Old-man shit."
In an adjacent trailer, APC guitarist Billy Howerdel is about to work out some Adam and the Ants tunes on a borrowed guitar for a tribute to the 1980 album Kings of the Wild Frontier the next night in Los Angeles. ("My favorite, number-one record of all time," he says.) Both spoke individually to Rolling Stone about their shared history with Coachella and the new state of APC.
Do you have any memories of the first Coachella?
Maynard James Keenan: The first night Rage Against the Machine headlined, and I sang with them on "Know Your Enemy." But the very first band to be on the main stage was A Perfect Circle. And we were a last-minute addition.
Billy Howerdel: Yeah, [October] 1999. It was really hot. I remember going into the Porta-John, threw water on my face, walked out of there with toilet paper stuck to my shoe. Maynard pointed it out right before we walked out onstage. He avoided me the first embarrassment that day. That's a memory that sticks.
That was right around the time A Perfect Circle was coming together and doing the first album.
Keenan: Yeah, I think that was one of our first shows – other than some early things at the Whisky and the Viper Room. It was really hot, as it tends to be at Coachella, and we didn't even get to play "Judith" because the bass rig caught on fire.
Howerdel: The amp was in the direct sun – the sun came down and popped the tube right at the beginning of "Judith." It was our ending song. No one knew us. I remember about 5,000 or 7,000 people in the crowd – it was a lot. I think it was our fourth show.
How was the response?
Keenan: We were so concerned with getting it right, that I have no idea. It could have been 70 people or 700. It was a blur. The bass amp started smoking.
Howerdel: I remember I was wearing a ridiculous outfit. The reaction was really good. It didn't feel awkward. It was well attended and we were lucky to fall into this new thing called Coachella.
Was it an easy thing to play with APC and then Tool the next night?
Keenan: It was easily more than 24 hours apart, so I switched gears the next night. It was fun.
Howerdel: What I always remember of Maynard was his graciousness – he's the headliner, but he's not throwing his weight around or being grandiose.
There was some alarm about the intense crowd response to Tool and Rage, so heavy music was apparently avoided at Coachella for a few years.
Keenan: Yeah, we scared them. I like what [Coachella founders] Paul Tollett and the late dearly departed Rick Van Santen did – I just love that they did their homework. There's been a lot of festivals that have come and gone before and since – and they went to European festivals to see how they build the thing that's a cultural event that's not just dusty fields and trucks and a bunch of muddy kids. People that want to go get dirty and listen to loud music and do drugs, they'll just go to Burning Man. There's other things that can happen here.
They've made a mark for themselves by going: How can we make this better? It's hard here. You have to be accommodating to not only the artists and the fans coming to see the music, you also have to be accommodating to all the entitled Hollywood types that think they're far more important than they are – some of them are very important, some of them are not.
There have been some surprising people here. Clint Eastwood has shown up a couple of times.
Keenan: Danny DeVito was front row for Puscifer last time we played here [in 2013]. He just loves music. He's been here quite a few years.
"Hopefully people see this as an honest statement from where we are, rather than us trying to relive our glory days." –Maynard James Keenan
The first Coachella debuted right after the Woodstock '99 disaster of fires and rapes.
Keenan: No big deal, just some fires and rapes. Jesus. People are not inherently like that. A few bad apples are going to make it go down that path. Of course, given the right circumstance, you can unlock someone's inner asshole and they'll follow. But that's not the norm. It's unfortunate because that could have been another ongoing festival at a different time for a different side of the country.
What was going on with Tool back then? You had just started APC.
Keenan: There was probably a bunch of lawsuits and feet-dragging or something going on at that point. That was probably me seeing that window as like, "Eh, I have a roommate [Howerdel] who has some music and I apparently have time on my hands."
Anything you want to say about Tool?
Keenan: There isn't anything. I'm just waiting. I'm done. When they're ready, I will be ready.
How does it feel to be back at Coachella with the first new A Perfect Circle album in a long time?
Howerdel: I feel a little more timid. We just had our warm-up show at a festival yesterday. We're not the well-oiled machine of being on tour for a month. We debuted a lot of new songs for the first time last night, so these people are going to hear some pretty intricate arrangements for the first time live without hearing the record. I have mixed feelings about that. But let's jump in!
Keenan: Hopefully it's relevant. That's the fear of getting older and not being relevant. Hopefully people see this as an honest statement from where we are, rather than us trying to relive our glory days.
At a certain point, A Perfect Circle went quiet, and it looked like the band might not necessarily come back.
Keenan: Part of it was me having to step away for a while. Part of it was my winery and trying to get Tool nudged forward, and Puscifer. All those things were going on simultaneously and I just lost track of time, honestly. Anything's possible now, and we're able to blow the dust off that and go, "Oh, yeah, we can do this." And Billy always has material up his sleeve.
Now that you have a new album with months of touring ahead, does A Perfect Circle feel like it's fully back in action with an open-ended future?
Howerdel: Past this cycle? I hope so, but Maynard has a lot of other endeavors that he's going to jump into. It's kind of the understanding I've had since 1998 when we first talked about it. This was to weave into the time that was available to him. I'm real happy to be doing it right now. It's what I love doing.