This story originally appeared in the June 2001 issue of Spin. As Tool readies their first album in 13 years, we’re republishing it here.
Sometimes, singing songs about choking infants, swallowing poison, and rotting in an apathetic existence can get kind of stressful. So every now and then, Maynard James Keenan likes to get away from it all. He comes here, to this sanctuary in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley—a picturesque setting where he can relax, contemplate, and just, well, have a little Maynard time.
The place, known as CityWalk, is an outdoor food pavilion-cum-strip mall-cum-amusement park, a consumer flagship to the Hollywood megalopolis Univer-sal Studios. Just three minutes from the recording studio where Keenan’s band Tool are completing their ferociously awaited new LP, this immense shrine to ill-advised spending greets us today with Lenny Kravitz blasting from inescapable speakers. Sidewalk vendors hawk airbrushed portraits of Tupac and Barbra Streisand, while the ritzier stores offer action figures, Pez collectibles, pink fudge, and other essentials. Kids scamper. Moms scream. The migraine countdown begins.
“This is as close to hell as Earth gets,” says Keenan, edging down the promenade. He looks left, then right. “When it’s crowded, it’s almost intolerable,” he continues. “You want to get out a rifle, stand out on a building, and…erase the karmic debt, so to speak.”
These words come not from some dreadlocked goth-biker, tattooed B-boy, or any of the stock figures fronting “heavy” rock bands these days. A bantam 5’7′, Keenan walks through the crowd this afternoon with a shaved head, black Nike warm-up suit, and the nervous, wide-eyed expression of a Jack Russell terrier. He has the dark stubble and generous nose that casting directors would label “ethnic-looking.” He might get picked to play a streetwise informant in a cop show. He would probably not be cast as a singer who has captivated millions of metal-mad concertgoers and motivated one of rock’s most rabid cults with two different bands: Tool and their new competition, A Perfect Circle, which Keenan formed with pal Billy Howerdel and whose debut has gone platinum.
In fact, given his preference for costumed performances and unpeopled videos. Keenan is pretty much the sole rock megastar who’s virtually unrecognizable, even to his fans. “Once, [Tool guitarist] Adam [Jones] and I were leaving the Hollywood Palladium after seeing a show,” he recalls. “And after we said goodnight and split to go to our cars, some kid runs up to me, frantic-‘Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God, were you just talking to Adam Jones from Tool?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, he’s cool, you should go talk to him. He might take you out to dinner.'”
If Keenan’s look isn’t familiar, the sniper sentiments should be, at least to fans of Tool’s last record, 1996’s Ænima, whose title track longed for a natural disaster to strike “the hopeless fucking hole we call L.A.” and sweep away “millions of dumbfounded dipshits.” As singer and lyricist, Keenan has found a way to transmute such thoughts—rueful, surreal, mordantly hilarious—into a classic kind of Zeppelinesque drama. He now heads one of the last surviving heavyweights of the artistically ambitious hard-rock ’90s, a shadowy dirge-metal outfit whose songs churn along in tightly orchestrated blasts of eerie sound and fury and whose spectacularly dark videos (like “Prison Sex” and “Stinkfist”) have never featured any members of the band.
Concerts are a different story. “You can count on one hand how many bands of today have great frommen,” says Sharon Osbourne, wife of Ozzy and organizer of Ozzfest. “Maynard is definitely one of them. He has one of the best voices out there, and he’s just so creative. You don’t know what to expect when you see Maynard. He’s just amazing.” Plus, the man really knows how to accessorize. Keenan’s stage attire has included bustiers, long blond wigs, blue and white body paint, prosthetic breasts, Speedos, a wheelchair, and the shiny, wide-lapeled suit of a televangelist. (Wearing the latter, he began one I concert waving a limited-edition, gold-plated Bible, which he later hurled into the crowd.)
Yet here today, Keenan remains as unremarkable as any other wiseass hipster goofing on tourist traps. When we come upon the novelty store Out-Takes, which uses digital imaging to put customers’ faces onto movie posters and magazine covers, Keenan considers a fireman torso from Backdraft and a hunk on Muscle & Fitness. He finally chooses the poster for the recent 102 Dalmatians. “I’d get Glenn Close’s body,” he says. “Which I guess is good.”
After the attendant seats Keenan before the blue screen, something strange happens. With his hands calmly folded on his lap, Keenan begins to change. His coal-black eyes start to glimmer, as if staring off at some distant horror. The corners of his mouth ease downward, finding the look of a frozen death mask. The shutter snaps. The pose breaks. The attendant and her coworkers burst into applause.
A minute later we get the photo. Sitting atop the fur collar of the Disney diva, Keenan’s face evokes less Cruella De Vil than a classical depiction of some mythological tragedy. His look of unspeakable anguish suggests the martyred St. Sebastian pierced by arrows, or Prometheus chained to the rock, his liver devoured by an eagle.
When I ask what he was going for with that particular character, Keenan shrugs.
“Well, I was just trying to capture what Glenn Close was probably feeling during the filming of 102 Dalmatians,” he says. He looks at the photo for a few seconds. “This could be titled ‘Smell Dogshit.'”
On a fine sunny January day in Los Angeles, the members of Tool are,fittingly, holed up in the dark. They’re huddling over a mixing board with producer David Bottril, whose other clients include King Crimson and Peter Gabriel, putting the final touches on Lateralus. It’s a disquieting time for Tool, partially because, as they stand up, blink, and look around them, they realize they’re the sole survivors of the Hard Rock class of ’93.
“Alice in Chains, Helmet, Soundgarden, Nirvana, and now Rage,” says drummer Danny Carey, a tall, surfer-ish guy with dirty-blond hair who hails from a small Kansas town. He lets out a long exhalation. “It’s really kind of amazing that all of them are gone.” Bassist Justin Chancellor sits next to him, with dark, shoulder-length hair, a brush of chin beard, and dark-circled eyes. “We can definitely understand; it’s hard to keep a band together,” he says, in a low voice with a Northern English accent vaguely reminiscent of Derek Smalls’. “But in our case, it’s just worth it.”
Keenan says that mutual respect, more than shared taste (Jones digs death-metal extremists Meshuggah; Keenan’s more into the Bulgarian Women’s Choir), has been the real source of Tool’s longevity. “What we have in common is the ability to listen,” he says. “You just listen to each other and find some space in the center. And if there isn’t room for you there, then you wait until there is.”
But three years ago, when the other three members of Tool were finally ready to start work on Lateralus, they found a bit more space than usual. “Maynard was gone for a lot of it,” says Carey, “off doing his Perfect Circle thing.”
Chancellor adds, “We didn’t quit working because he was away. He was around jamming for a while. But there was a while where he was off and it was the three of us.” The band’s usual mode of working is to make the music first and add lyrics last, so they got much of the music done while Keenan was away. “It’s somewhat unusual,” admits Carey. But if there’s tension here, no one is copping to it.
And so we have the setting for Tool’s comeback, the drama “behind the music.” Four decade-long friends, grappling with changes, facing down rivals, and trying to reestablish some kind of connection with each other. It isn’t smooth sailing, but that seems to be par for the course. After the release of Ænima, Keenan told a reporter, “Every aspect of what we do—each song, each video, each album cover—is tortured over by each of us. Nothing comes easy for this band.” In earlier interviews, Tool would often refer to a book called A Joyful Guide to Lachrymology, whose existence is dubious. Nevertheless, it is said to advise, “When there is no pain, there is neither the reason nor the desire to think or create.”
Well, it seems Tool still have found reasons to think and create—a lot. Explaining the title song, Keenan says, “The core of it is lateral thinking. And the human element of the spiral, the lateral.” Carey helpfully adds, “It was originally titled 9-8-7. For the time signatures. Then it turned out that 987 was the 17th step of the Fibonacci sequence (in which each integer is equal to the sum of the preceding two). So that was cool.”
If your sensors are detecting nerd life on the planet surface, that’s understandable. The widely suspect genre known as “prog rock” has a few defining characteristics. Tune signatures in odd numbers. Songs that stretch over seven minutes. Song titles like “Parabola.” Tool’s latest has them all. While “math rock” is the term used to describe any eggheaded, metrically ambitious band, these guys have a math-rock song that’s actually about math.
Keenan insists otherwise. The new songs only use the constructs of math and science as metaphors for human lives. “They’re all about relationships,” he explains. “Learning how to integrate communication back into a relationship. How are we as lovers, as artists. as brothers—how are we going to reconstruct this beautiful temple that we’ve built and that’s tumbled down? It’s universal relationship stuff.”
Unlike on earlier Tool records, Keenan found these lyrics—in a sort of Freudian free-associative way—from scatting lines and responding to the emotions suggested by the music itself, which rises, ebbs, and crystallizes with a nearly Beethoven-ish deliberation. The debut single, “Schism,” builds a rippling arpeggio into a heady harmonic-minor groove. The title track begins with an ominous, Autechre-ish pulse and morphs it into a tightly packed metal riff, as Keenan’s lyrics chart a history of consciousness over digitally triggered tablas and congas.
Lateralus is the work of thinking, optimistic adults who still have the gee-whiz eagerness of tinkerers, guys who have gone beyond purging adolescent baggage and are struggling, musically, to find the next phase. And the stakes for the struggle are high, since a beloved band, and some very intense friendships, hang in the balance.
Eleven years ago, four artsy, self-effacing guys in Los Angeles formed a band, a quartet their liner notes would list, simply, as “Geeks: Danny Carey, Justin Chancellor, Adam Jones, Maynard James Keenan.” Jones was working in the film industry, doing special effects work for films like Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park. Carey and Keenan were sidemen in the joke-metal act Green Jellÿ (né Jello), the latter making his vocal debut as the falsetto voice of one of the three little pigs. The three met bassist Paul D’Amour, who was later replaced by Chancellor.
Under a rubric befitting a ’30s Russian art cabal, this collection of King Crimson and Black Sabbath fans came to transcend the genre of “heavy” music. Keenan’s morbid telegrams from the subconscious—”I am just a worthless liar / I am just an imbecile”—were complicated by his distinctive vocal ambiguity—the eerily sweet, calm voice of a troubadour giving way to one of the all-time great metal shrieks. Their songs, tortured enough to merit comparisons to goth titans like the Cure and Nine Inch Nails, struck a chord with a nation of bummed adolescents.
In 1993, after an appearance at Lollapalooza, they exploded. Opiate, released in 1992, 1993’s Undertow, and 1996’s Ænima have all gone gold or platinum; the recent multimedia set Salival has sold 250,000 copies. “I can’t name any other band that measures up to the kind of credibility that Tool have,” says Lisa Worden, music director at L.A.’s KROQ. “They never compromise any of their beliefs and interests as far as what they want to do. They have built this completely loyal and huge fan base. and it just continues to grow.”
The fans come in all shapes and income brackets. “Tool’s probably the best band, I think, on the planet,” Fred Durst told MTV News a little while ago. “There’s something wrong with those guys. They’re too good. They know something that the rest of the world doesn’t know. … I can’t even be in a category with that band.”
With this last point, the members of Tool would probably agree. The world of hard rock has undergone a profound change since Tool were last on the scene. Not only were last on the scene. Not only are Jungian discourses and Fibonacci sequences pretty far from the concerns of most of today’s nü-metal bands. but even the ideas of “pain” and “dysfunction” have been devalued. They have become prepackaged flavas, sampled emotions, which have perhaps found their most extreme reduction in a couplet by Nirvana-loving rap/rockers Papa Roach: “Broken home / All alone.” Sing in verse. Scream in chorus. Jump up and down.
Such digitized packets of fun’n’angst have little in common with Tool records, which are not cursory, MP3- singles-on-CD fan-club accessories. They are weighty. mysterious testaments from afar, full of philosophy. jokes. weird sounds. shifting imagery, and odd meters. They’re also a bitch to make. Which partially explains why fans haven’t heard from Tool in five years.
Chalk the rest of the wait up to business as usual. Three years ago, Tool were forced to deal with corporate restructuring at their label, Zoo, followed by a suit from their manager of seven years. Ted Gardner, cofounder of Lollapalooza. Gardner filed a $5 million-plus action against the band (for rescission of management contract, fraud, etc.), and the collective shit storm preempted music making for, literally, years.
To escape the legal chokehold, Keenan formed A Perfect Circle with roommate, guitarist, and Tool tech Billy Howerdel. “All the litigation and stuff was just crippling,” Keenan says. “I just had to go do something.” Their debut, Mer des Noms, delivered the killer industrial-rock single “Judith,” whose “fuck your God, your Christ” chorus provided withdrawing Nine Inch Nails fans with a mainline dose of tuneful blasphemy. The entire record revealed a potent songwriting team in composer Howerdel and lyricist Keenan, and one with a potentially wider audience than Tool’s. “I think people who listen to Perfect Circle hear something totally different from me,” Keenan says. “It’s much more like the Cure. It’s more ethereal and accessible. Also, I think a lot of Tool fans weren’t aware that I could sing.”
If A Perfect Circle are giving Keenan an outlet for his more ethereal side, they’re also seriously complicating the story of Tool. In fact, the two bands are so skittish about potential conflicts of interest that the other members of A Perfect Circle refused to be interviewed for this story. Which is understandable. The huge success of Keenan’s new band is the kind that might typically bode poorly for a long-dormant prior commitment. But then, it seems, very little about Tool is typical.
The Hard Rock Hotel is the happening place in Las Vegas. A brightly lit festival of gambling and booze, its jumping atmosphere and plush amenities cater to just about every stripe of weekend reveler except, maybe, rock fans. I know many people who would find the Kurt Cobain quote “Here we are now / Entertain us,” stripped of irony and posted over the bellhop station, less than inspiring. It’s hard to imagine how a casino could miss using the much more site-appropriate Johnny Rotten line that ended the last Sex Pistols concert: “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”
It is in this modern Babylon that A Perfect Circle play tonight, plugged on the electronic billboard alongside “Caribbean Stud Poker.”
The crowd features plenty of pierced thugs in Tool tees, alongside goth mop-tops. snakeskin pants, and the region’s residual frosted showgirl hair. A pretty 25-year-old mortgage underwriter named Autumn explains why she prefers A Perfect Circle to Tool. “Perfect Circle are not so Satanic-sounding,” she says. A longhaired devotee named Todd has brought his 10-year-old daughter Clarissa to the show. “This is our first Maynard experience,” he says, grinning. An even more serious Maynard cultist offers facts about Keenan’s performing ethic. “He’s all about his costume,” he says. “Every time they do a show, he’s trying to teach you something.”
Tonight, class begins with a lone violinist and an ominous Middle Eastern drone. Keenan enters wearing a long black wig under a dark watch cap, shirtless. in black glitter pants. Sharing lead vocals with Billy Howerdel, who looks like a slighter Billy Corgan in shaved white head and tight crewneck top, Keenan stands stock-still between verses. hunched slightly. muscled redoubtable. and—somehow—riveting. “He never blinks, dude,” says our Maynard expert. scrutinizing the huge video screens on either side of the stage. “He never blinks.”
With only one album’s worth of material, APC construct newer compositions out of existing lyrics and songs. weaving them together into a sort of live rock remix. Songs flow one into the next, forming a flawlessly executed suite of glamour. tension. and fetching misery. The band close with a stellar version of David Bowie’s post-glam classic “Ashes to Ashes.”
Tool and APC rarely play encores. “I don’t jerk off the crowd,” Keenan has said. Tonight his only words of dosing are, “Well, there you have it.” No giant toilet, no cage dancers, no inflatable pigs. And somehow, nobody seems to have the feeling they’ve been cheated.
Clearly, Keenan has got this whole art-rock thing perfectly wired. He recognizes the plight of bands hoping to freshen cock-rock postures with post-Cobain angst. But he suggests looking a bit further back for inspiration and, more boldly, rethinking the testosterone impulse. “I think bands like Queen and Judas Priest ended up shining out of the crowd back then,” he says. “I think the vulnerability and emotional aspect in their heavy music was recognizable because it was genuine. ‘Cause you figure Rob [Halford] and Freddie [Mercury], being gay, and they can’t say it out loud, that’s a lot of genuine frustration, genuine passion.” Do not hold your breath waiting for another current rock singer to champion the transcendent value of a gay frontman.
Keenan’s ideas of frustration and passion were formed growing up with a secret in a small town. The son of two Midwestern high school teachers, he was a varsity wrestler, a track athlete, and a deeply closeted Joni Mitchell fan. “You couldn’t really bust out Joni Mitchell in high school,” he recalls. “You had to play the Knack, AC/DC, and the Cars.”
After high school, Maynard did a fairly strange thing for a future metal warrior: He joined the Army. He calls the decision an exercise in contrarianism. “It was basically, ‘Let me do the most ridiculous, illogical thing I can think of,'” he says. “‘And after that, if it’s not right, I’ll know it’s not right.'”
When did you feel it wasn’t right?
“As soon as the bus pulled out of the parking lot. Realizing I just…fucked…up.”
Post-discharge, Keenan soon succumbed to the same force that lures so many dreamy-eyed young people to Los Angeles: the pet industry. Partly as a result of his gig at a chain store called Petland, he is currently the proud owner of four hairless cats. “Emotionally, they’re more like dogs.” he says. “They’re not so aloof.”
Keenan also gravitated to the underground comedy scene, where he performed in after-hours clubs, making friends with up-and-coming comics like David Cross and Bob Odenkirk, who later cast him in a couple of Mr. Show episodes. As with his time in the pet industry, these experiences are hardly lost on his current occupation.
“Maynard’s just a really funny person,” says Carey, an opinion borne out by the bone-dry humor running through the records themselves. On Ænima’s “Die Eier von Satan,” what sounds like a Nuremberg rally excerpt is actually a cookie recipe read in German through a mega-phone. “Message to Harry Manback” sets an obscene, semicoherent death threat from a friend’s ousted room-mate to a moody, Nine Inch Nails-ish piano nocturne. More recently, Tool’s website shared with eager fans sup-posed new song titles like “Encephatalis,” “Coeliacus,” “Pain Canal,” and “Lactation.’ goofs on the death-metal aesthetic and Tool’s own reputation.
If, as Goethe wrote, “men show their character in nothing more clearly than by what they think laughable,” Keenan is in some rare company. But if we also judge a man by the company he keeps, he seems just as unusual. Keenan’s friends include Trent Reznor and members of Rage, Melvins, and Deftones, all of whom are also collaborators (with Reznor leading, with Keenan, the upcoming, black-clad, super-secretive supergroup Tapeworm).
“Maynard’s approach to music is out in left field in comparison with other musicians,” says Deftones’ Chino Moreno. “I’m pretty sure he knows all that, and it’s probably why he’s such a smartass little fucker.” Keenan’s also friends with Judas Priest’s Halford, Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine (with whom he’s reported to share a vacation house), and, most surprisingly, Tori Amos, who shares with Keenan a Christian upbringing and a lasting fascination with religion.
“He really is this beautiful guy,” she says. “And he believes that you can’t separate yourself from what you create. I think we both believe that whatever you put out there, the phrase ‘Oh. I’m just kidding,’ is fuckin’ weak. He does not negotiate with his beliefs, and if he’s a friend, he’s a real friend. He just has this deep spiritual currency.”
The sun is setting as Keenan and I finish our stroll through CityWalk, the scenery recalling Ænima’s description of L.A. as “one great big festering neon distraction.” A shrill alarm comes wailing out of a storefront. “You’re not allowed to have fun here,” Keenan muses. “Some fun was probably just detected.”
Keenan and his bandmates have spent 10 years negotiating the crassest commercial pressures and have a survivor’s humor about it. In the Ænima song “Hooker With a Penis,” the singer is confronted by a young fan in “Vans, 501s, and a dope Beastie tee” who, between sips of Coke, calls him a sellout. His response is the mea culpa “I sold out long before you ever heard my name… / So shut up and / Buy my new record / Send more money / Fuck you, buddy.” The mix of sarcasm, self-loathing, and righteous indignation is somehow very Tool.
And yet, the last time a long, torturous, highly anticipated album from a tormented rock hero came out, it didn’t exactly shoot up the charts—although critics and Tool agree that Nine Inch Nails’ The Fragile was a brilliant work. The road now seems to be even rockier for a supposed metal band that wants to make art.
For their part, Tool don’t seem too worried. Of the few things Keenan has an abiding faith in, the fans seem to be one of them. “Tool fans aren’t masculine to the point of grunt-rock or whatever, with that kind of herd mentality,” Keenan says. “Maybe I’m completely kidding myself and overestimating our audience, but I feel like there’s a definite percentage more thinkers”—the assumption being that said thinkers will support thoughtful music.
With luck, they will. One of Tool’s central accomplishments might be taking this musical language of heroic Sturm and Drang. of wizards, damnation, hammers and anvils—and, more recently, caricaturized adolescent pain—and populating it with more real discussions of life’s extreme moments and thoughts. Despite the pressures of a homogenized marketplace and the lure of other projects, it’s likely that this band has spent too many years tending to this unique creative outlet to just give up.
Walking toward the “Jurassic Parking” garage, we find ourselves in the cool glow of the gigantic, neon Fender guitar that looms over CityWalk’s own Hard Rock Café. The mosque-shaped building provides a fitting image for the profound aspirituality of the rock industry, 2001 When I ask how Tool plan to get that industry to embrace a record as high-minded as Lateralus, Keenan answers concisely, in a manner befitting someone with deep spiritual currency. He chuckles and says simply, “Pray.”