An interview with Maynard James Keenan – vocalist of Tool, A Perfect Circle and Puscifer, and more recently, a winemaker for Caduceus Cellars – conducted for Junior in mid-November 2010, ahead of Tool’s headline appearance on the 2011 Big Day Out tour.
You can read the Junior cover story based around this interview here.
At the time we spoke, Maynard was touring with A Perfect Circle for that band’s reformation shows. This is the full transcription of our conversation.
Andrew: How are you today?
Maynard: I’m sick.
Bit of a head cold or something. I’ve had it for the last seven days.
In the middle of a tour?
Yeah, isn’t it great?
Oh man, I feel bad for you. How have those shows been going for you, besides the sickness?
They’ve been a struggle. It’s difficult enough to go out and do a regular tour and have the same or similar set, but to do three completely different sets and some of the songs you’ve never played live, and some of them you haven’t played in six or 10 years, and then have a cold on top of it… Jesus, some of these songs I had a difficult time singing 10 years ago, let alone 10 years later and being sick. So it’s definitely been a challenge. I’m up for it, but it’s been a challenge.
Are you cursing your younger self for his vocal range?
Yeah, I’m kind of pissed off at myself for having written songs that were pushing the envelope 10 years ago. And when I say pushing the envelope, I mean pushing my range, what I’m capable of. It’s definitely taking a toll.
Since you’ve had a few years away from that band, are you able to look at those albums with fresh eyes and ears?
That’s a tough one. I think it’s really difficult to do that, because I’m always going to hear the flaws. All I hear is the production flaws, or what I would have done differently performance-wise, so it’s hard to be objective with those. I never judge them too harshly; they just are what they are.
Yeah. I think it should be compulsory viewing for all Tool and APC fans, new and old, to see where you are right now.
Uh, how so?
I’ve followed your work closely for around a decade, and I thought the film gave a great insight into a side of you that I couldn’t have imagined seeing 10 years ago. It seems like you drop your guard more often. Or at least, you’re more willing to entertain the thought.
Yeah. It wasn’t an easy film to be involved in. It’s hard to have people follow you around with cameras for a year.
Did you enjoy the process, though?
Oh, no. I was more concerned about… I wanted to be more concerned about what we were doing in the vineyard, and with the business in general. Building the winery was a lot of work and it was still in its infant stages. But it might not have been as interesting a movie if this was 10 years into the winery already being established. But you know, our chaotic first couple of years probably made the film more interesting.
Are you able to look at a film like that objectively and judge your past actions?
No. [laughs] I don’t know.
Tool’s early identity was defined by this unwillingness to play the same image-driven game that every other band did. Am I right to believe that you’ve moved on a little since then?
Well, I don’t think that there was a master plan in place, like a manifesto that we came up with that said “we’re not going to do these things”. It might have been that, as individuals and collectively, we were just dysfunctional enough to where we were incapable of playing along. And so it just managed to work in our favour when it could very well have worked against us.
I think just the timing, and all the stuff that went on with Nirvana at that point in time; I think that opened the doors for A&R people who didn’t have a clue about what they were really getting into. They didn’t understand it. They figured they better sign it, because they didn’t understand Nirvana. “Sign ‘em, hurry up!”, and then look for the next big thing. That just worked in our favour as Tool, because they definitely didn’t understand us. We got to dig our heels in and do what we wanted.
Did you know what you were doing at that point? All four of you saying “no we’re not going to do that shit, we’re not going to do a bunch of interviews, we’re not going to pose for photos…”
We just didn’t know how to, so we just said no. We weren’t really sure how it affected us, but we just weren’t capable of saying yes, so we just kept saying no, and it kept working so we just continued to keep saying no.
These days you say yes to a few more things, maybe not everything. Would you call that maturity or just a realisation that sometimes it’s okay to share some things?
Yeah, I think once you understand something a little more, then you can discern what makes sense and what doesn’t make sense. I think it’s still difficult for some of us to say yes to anything, because we’re so used to saying no. We just think about it too much and then at some point you start tricking yourself into thinking that you actually knew why you said no. And you have to get involved in everything to dissect it and think about it.
It’s kind of like when you’re working on your house, or something, and have some kind of inspector coming by to look at what you’ve done. He has to say something is wrong. Otherwise you’re not justifying his existence if he doesn’t find something wrong with what you did. So by presenting the question to a band with them saying ‘no’ all the time, to get their permission. You’ve heard ‘it’s better to ask forgiveness than to ask for permission’?
Yeah. That’s kind of how, at some point, people are just going to start treating you that way.
Do you give much thought to why people are interested in Maynard James Keenan?
No. I just kind of do what I do, and I try my best with whatever I’m doing, but I don’t know if it’s good or not; I just do what I do and people tend to show up for it. I’m thankful for that. I do my part, keep doing things, so at the end of the day I kind of get to stick to what makes sense for you to do, and hopefully at the end of the day you can sleep at night.
Can you sleep at night, Maynard?
Oh yeah, absolutely!
In a similar vein, and a similar question, do you reflect much on your influence as an artist in the last 20 years?
I don’t… Influence… What do you mean?
The fact that you’ve inspired singers to sing, performers to perform, musicians to start bands.
I’m sure you have.
Oh. I don’t know, I just assume people… really?
Are you playing with me, Maynard?
No, I – I thought it was a hypothetical.
No, not at all.
I have no idea. I guess the answer is no, I haven’t really reflected on that because I haven’t really… That’s nice to know that we’ve inspired people to do stuff.
To turn the question around, which artists have been influencing and inspiring you recently in a musical sense?
Well just in the artistic sense, people like Penfolds’ wine. Max Schubert. His dedication to following his heart. People like Lance Armstrong, people like Joni Mitchell, who just do what they do and everybody else be damned. Not that they don’t like people, but they have to do what they do.
You have that quote at the end of the film [Blood Into Wine] where you say “As artists, it’s our job to observe, interpret, and report.” That seems to read as a kind of mission statement for you. I’m interested to know when and how you decided upon this role of the artist?
I guess it was more hindsight, when you look back and see what you’ve done and you go, ‘Okay, what the fuck have I been doing?’ You kind of have to fill out an outline of what it is you’re doing and the best explanation I could come up with was between making wine and handmade pasta, and painting and sculpting, and architecture and music. Then you just like look at the thing, digest it, and then re-present it.
Has your belief in art strengthened over time?
I don’t know if I understand that statement. Believing in art?
As an artist, you value art. Has that feeling become stronger?
If you have any success with your interpretations, the hardest part is staying fresh and not falling into a rut, and thinking that you know all the answers. That somewhat chaotic state, that confused, vulnerable state I think is important to at least have a finger on. You don’t have to beat yourself up, you don’t have to suffer for your art but you definitely have to be a little confused to understand where to move.
If you’re a chef and you’re trying to use fresh vegetables, the weather is going to affect your menu, and you can’t just rely – if you’re a good chef and you present something that’s alive and vibrant, you have to embrace the fact that it’s not going to be consistent. You have to be able to roll with the changes.
I watched an interview you did with Patton Oswalt, where he asked you about performing live. You said “It’s safer to act than to really be it anymore.” By that, did you mean you can no longer relate to what you’ve written in the past?
No, I think I’m not quite sure – is that… that was in the film?
No, that seemed to be like an outtake from around the same time. It was on YouTube.
I don’t know. I’d have to see the clip to see in context what we were talking about.
I would answer that but I would need to see it in context to really comment. Sorry. [clip embedded below]
Sure. For example, what would you get out of performing a song like ‘Stinkfist’ nowadays?
There’s always something I can improve in it. There’s parts of that song that I never quite get right, so I’m always looking for those spots to see how I can do them better but everything else is… At some point, some of it becomes autopilot. I don’t have to think about those pieces, I feel like I’ve got those down.
I saw the Smashing Pumpkins recently. It felt like Billy [Corgan] was rushing to get some of his more well-known songs out of the way so he could play the new stuff. Can you relate to that kind of feeling?
No, no. I mean, especially since James Iha’s not in the band, I can’t really relate to the fact that Smashing Pumpkins are out there.
I see. Well, since you don’t necessarily have an album to promote this time around, will you be constructing a set list a little different to last time?
Yeah, I’m hoping. We’re trying to re-present things in a different way, or pick different tracks that people haven’t heard. Which isn’t hard to do, since some of the songs that we perform, most people won’t have been born when we actually wrote them. It’ll be fun, regardless.
Have you given much thought to the fact that you’re headlining Australia’s biggest national tour, which sold out in record time despite the fact that Tool hasn’t released anything in four years?
Well in a way, it’s inspiring because it means people are still paying attention to what we’re doing and that’s good. We’ve definitely made a mark.
I’d agree. I first saw you play live in 2002, when ‘Lateralus’ was really the pivotal moment of the set, where you gave that speech about going out and doing something positive and creating something. I want to ask; what did you get out of that little social experiment, of pausing to ask people to reflect on themselves, to go out there and do something that inspires them?
Oh, I just took my own advice and started a winery.
Thanks for your time, Maynard.
Thank you very much.
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