Junior interview: Maynard James Keenan of Tool, December 2010

The cover story for the Dec 2010-Jan 2011 issue of Junior: an interview with Tool vocalist Maynard James Keenan. Click the below image for a closer look, or read the article text underneath.

Tool: Pushing The Envelope

At first glance, Tool might seem an odd choice as a headline act for Australia’s biggest national touring festival.

However, their level-headed approach to crafting immersive, long-lasting works has resonated with a hard-core of devotees who number in the millions worldwide. Although they’ve not released any new music since 2006’s 10,000 Days – which debuted at #1 on the ARIA charts, and remained in the top 50 for nine months – come January 2011, they’ll close each Big Day Out with a powerful selection of their best material (if their 2007 appearance on the same festival circuit is anything to go by).

Examining just how and why Tool inspire such passionate devotion among so many progressive metal fans is a topic more suited to a book than a magazine article – and if you’re so inclined, one already exists (2009’s Unleashed: The Story Of Tool, by Joel McIver). A brief summary of the facts, then.

After forming in Los Angeles in 1990, the quartet established themselves as an act diametrically opposed to the fame game pursued by many of their musical peers. Surprisingly, their preference for anonymity in the golden age of MTV earned them credibility in an era which decidedly lacked such merits. As a result, Tool aren’t the kind of band you can ‘sort of’ like. There’s no such thing as a casual Tool fan.

With their potent combination of distinctive, heavy instrumentation and singer Maynard James Keenan’s singular voice, they’re perhaps the only rock band who were able to push back against a crumbling record industry and opt for quality over quantity. Including their 1993 debut full-length, Undertow, they’ve released just four studio albums; they’ve also maintained the same line-up, bar one bassist changeover in 1995.

In mid-November, Junior had a rare opportunity to speak with Tool’s vocalist, Maynard James Keenan. Keenan is also known for holding the microphone in A Perfect Circle (APC), a less threatening – but no less remarkable – American rock act who released three albums between 2000 and 2004. After a five-year hiatus, APC are in the midst of shaking out the cobwebs on a short reformation tour, wherein they performed each of their three LPs in full, on successive nights in four American cities. Keenan is halfway through the short tour when Junior connects with him; we soon discover that the singer is suffering from a cold.

How have the APC reformation shows been going for you, besides the sickness?

Maynard: 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.

Tool’s early identity was defined by an unwillingness to play the same image-driven game as every other band. 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. 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 [do it], 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, though maybe not everything. Would you call that maturity, or just a realisation that sometimes it’s okay to share some things?

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 the saying “it’s better to ask forgiveness than to ask for permission”? 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!

Has your belief in art strengthened over time?

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.

What do 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.

Since you don’t necessarily have an album to promote this time around, will you be constructing the set list differently to your last Australian tour?

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.

Tool were my favourite band all throughout my teenage years, so being offered the chance to speak with Maynard was a pretty big deal for me. Thanks to the staff at Junior for making it happen.

If you’re interested in reading the full transcript of my conversation with Maynard, you can read it here.

Comments? Below.
  1. Joel McIver says:

    Thanks for the plug for my book, Andrew.



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