Interview: Maynard James Keenan,Tool

Tool frontman: 'I haven't smashed up one hotel room'

Maynard James Keenan, singer and lyricist with the U.S. heavy rock band Tool, has got a crush on Japan. "It's my favorite place on Earth," he gushed on the phone from Switzerland in the middle of a European tour, promoting Tool's most recent album, 10,000 Days. After seven trips to Japan, the thing that appeals most to him is the courtesy.

"That's what I like - the courtesy, everybody knowing what they're supposed to do and happy to do it," he said.

I asked Keenan if his job as a singer in a heavy rock band is to be a "sanctioned wild man." Isn't he supposed to disapprove of such nerdy behavior and, instead, to take drugs, sleep with groupies and smash up hotel rooms?

"You know, I'm 42 and I haven't smashed up one hotel room," he said with a touch of irony, admitting that this is one of the common expectations of someone in his position.

But the Los Angeles-based Keenan, who also owns and runs a winery in Arizona and has a successful musical side project (though now on hiatus) with his other heavy-metal band, A Perfect Circle, is far from being a typical rock star. Tool's music, too, although hard and heavy in a way common to any rock band appealing to a young male demographic, is anything but the usual hard-rock fare.

Seen as something of an intellectual in rock circles, Keenan has written lyrics inspired by the theories of Carl Gustav Jung and Karl Marx; his career has included a two-year stint in the U.S. Army, a spell in art school and a job designing pet stores. He founded Tool in 1990 in Los Angeles with guitarist Adam Jones, drummer Danny Carey and bassist Paul d'Amour, who left in 1995 and was replaced by English bassist Justin Chancellor.

The Tool sound that evolved between its grungy heavy metal debut, 1992's Opiate EP, and the band's 2001 breakthrough album, Lateralus, is showcased on the current release. 10,000 Days includes lengthy compositions with complex musical structures that eschew obvious hooks and verse-chorus-verse repetitiveness. This creates songs that sound rambling and even jazzy in form, but, according to Keenan, this appearance is deceptive.

"We spend a lot of time in what we call our improvisational phase when we're writing," he explained. "But when a piece is finished, it's something we've gone over and over, and we've mapped it out, more like a classical piece with specific movements like a symphony."

After composing the music, which the band members create together, Keenan writes the lyrics on his own. Although some songs on 10,000 Days are lyrically weak, the album also includes Vicarious, a pummeling masterpiece of invective that makes serious points about the age of Internet and cable TV:

"I need to watch things die/ From a good safe distance/ Vicariously, I/ Live while the whole world dies."

With lyrics that allude to universal themes of evilness, alienation, and later redemption, and a sound that comes across as epic and indefinable, Tool's music succeeds in sounding both 'big and clever,' but the essence of its appeal is that, like Wagnerian Opera or a lengthy Indian raga, it invokes the sublime rather than the beautiful.

Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher in his 1790 Critique of Judgment, noted that beauty "is connected with the form of the object" and has "boundaries," while the sublime "is to be found in a formless object," and has "boundlessness." I put it to Keenan that, lacking the obvious verse–chorus structures of conventional heavy rock, Tool’s music has a similar boundlessness that creates the feeling of awe, confusion, or anxiety that typifies the pleasure of the sublime.

"That would be it," he answered. "That's the space we get into when we're writing with each other. All of a sudden we realize we've touched on something like that and try to retrace our steps."

Because of this musical complexity, the band have inevitably been tagged as progressive metal.

"The press are going to define us on what they know and what they’re into," Keenan responded. "If they're only into classical music, then they’re going to define us as some kind of crazy devil worshipping metal band. If there're really into metal, death metal and that kind of stuff, then you’re going to call us fluffy prog rock band"

A more useful musical analogy is with the dynamics of traditional Indian music. Drummer Danny Carey has trained with Aloke Dutta an Indian tabla master.

But with music that creates a brooding sense of menace and lyrics that conjure a bleak universe, doesn't Keenan sometimes wish to unleash the cliched rock 'n' roll animal and throw the proverbial TV set into the proverbial hotel swimming pool, instead of sublimating all his rage and aggression into his music?

"I've never done that; it's not in my nature," he replied. "My nature is to sit in the middle of a room with four guys and create something, then go out and represent it the best way we can."

Consensus, conscientiousness and hard work-no wonder Keenan loves Japan so much!

Colin Liddell
International Herald Tribune Asahi Shimbun
12th January, 2007
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