One of two times to catch Maynard James Keenan at the festival

A Perfect Circle's first studio album in 14 years began with a phone call.

“The intention was always to do some new music. It's just a question of when and how it fit into the schedule,” said APC co-founder and guitarist Billy Howerdel in a recent call from Los Angeles. “So, you know, it started with Maynard [James Keenan] giving me a ring and saying, ‘Hey, this could happen.'”

Thus began a writing and recording process that culminated in Eat the Elephant, a somewhat unique process for the band compared to past recordings. Howerdel and Keenan spent less time face to face, instead bouncing ideas off each other via emailed files.

“Music is a conversation. I think both Maynard and I subscribe to that,” said Howerdel.

Expect to hear numerous selections from that conversation when APC plays Rock on the Range on Friday, May 18, the first of two Maynard-fronted weekend sets. (Tool closes out the three-day fest on Sunday.)

Eat the Elephant represents a band that's continued to forge forward while keeping an eye toward its past.

“I think we're one step backwards, three or four steps forward, and that's what felt good to me,” Howerdel said. “But it's a fine line between doing something that's self-serving as opposed to doing something that you think that the fans might want to hear.”

No track on the new album walks that fine line quite like the standout “So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish,” its Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy-inspired title setting up a winking ode to the end of the world.

“Bravissimo, hip hip hooray/For this fireworks display,” Keenan sings cheerfully about our presumed nuclear end. “Mind and body blown away/What a radiant crescendo!”

Howerdel and the rest of the band counter this with a positively poppy rock number, complete with clap-along, 4/4 kick drum.

“I do like that he took this completely juxtaposed point of view from the spirit of the song,” Howerdel said. “It's just dense and it's complex and the opposite of lazy.”

On the warmup leg for APC's current tour, the band also made headlines for a policy prohibiting photos and videos, including those taken with cell phones. Some fans felt it was an overreach (violators were ejected); some were grateful. Howerdel understood both perspectives.

“I've been one of those people with my phone out to take a video or picture for someone at home that you wanted to show and say, ‘Ha, ha. I'm here and you're not,'” he said. “And if I went to a show where people were asking not to, I wouldn't do it. I've been to Broadway plays, and I've gone to the movies, and I'm not whipping out my phone.

“It's not that big of a deal, but I was kind of surprised how many people felt so strongly about it, especially audience members who were like, ‘Thank you for saying this. We enjoyed the show more because of it.'”

Also notable for APC's current leg is who is filling in on bass for James Iha, who is currently prepping to hit the road as part of a reunited Smashing Pumpkins. APC tapped longtime Keenan friend Greg Edwards of Failure and Autolux.

“It's also a little intimidating showing Greg Edwards your parts, showing him what to play, just like it was with James,” Howerdel said. “It's a big, flattering moment for me to have both of those guys play in the band.”