Maynard James Keenan
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Maynard James Keenan fronts Tool, the only multi-platinum art-metal band whose members even its fans would have trouble picking out of a lineup. Since its 1990 debut, the Los Angeles quartet has intentionally shunned the media spotlight, preferring instead to let its dense, hyper-ambitious albums—including the recent 10,000 Days, whose brain-bending artwork features a built-in stereoscopic viewer—tell their own story. Understandably, the anti-image campaign has led to rumors, misinformation, and a biography that listeners have embraced as open-source code, and Keenan couldn't be happier about it. But there's more to the 42-year-old singer than his enigmatic stage presence: He's also a pundit, a father, a winemaker, a former Army cadet, and an underappreciated funnyman with a Mr. Show cameo under his jiu-jitsu belt. On the eve of Tool's fall European tour, Keenan let The A.V. Club see a little of each.
The A.V. Club: The last press campaign you did focused as much on your political views as on the music. Given how outspoken you are, why don't you do more interviews?
Maynard James Keenan: Because I'm not an educated man. I only know what I'm told, and I'm not told that much; I have no frame of reference for how to place things in history [that would let me] be a responsible leader. All I can do is be an artist, and basically waffle on about my feelings—which helps people, you know, get through a root canal, but it doesn't really help them deal with political stuff. All I can do is say I smell a rat. I don't know where it is or what kind of rat it is, but as an artist, I can express how [I feel about it]. But I couldn't responsibly stand up and tell people which way to go, because then I'm just as guilty as the people who are telling everybody else what to do and where to go.
AVC: Given how many records Tool sells, do you feel your message just gets diluted anyway?
MJK: Oh, it's going to get diluted. I tested the water with the political album A Perfect Circle did. [Until 2005, Keenan was pulling double-duty in A Perfect Circle; the political album was 2004's covers EP eMOTIVe. —ed.] I didn't even write those songs; I was just letting people hear what was said before me, the things that inspired me as a child, and things that were said during various turbulent times. And I was fucking crucified. If you go back and listen to that album and just forget that it's covers, it's a good album, but I was crucified because of its content, because there's an army of little fucking brats out there just going into every little chat room, talking shit and undermining anybody who has anything to say. It's like this insane, 1984/Big Brother infrastructure.
AVC: Do you purposely keep what you sing about in Tool more cryptic for that reason?
MJK: Yeah, because I think it's more important just to inspire people to wake up one day and pick up a book and start feeling it out for themselves. You can't tell them to read the book. You've just got to do this thing and emote in a certain way, and maybe bring up something now and then that they may get. It's just like being in a martial-arts class, where you're clipping along, you've been doing this damn thing for 10 years, and all of a sudden, one day, something clicks. And as soon as you get it, and you get that feeling in your body and that look on your face, you look over and your sensei is looking at you, nodding, going, "You got it right." You know, and then you move on. But until you get it yourself, you're just not going to get it.
AVC: On the tour behind 2001's Lateralus, you used the idea "Go get out there and do something positive, create something…" as a sort of onstage rallying cry. You don't seem quite so positive these days. Why the change?
MJK: Well, I think [the situation in America] is going to have to come to a head, because it's gone so far, and the people that have been duped are embarrassed, but they're not going to do anything about it. They're going to toe the line just to see if it pans out in their direction so they can say, "See, I was right." It really is imploding; it's getting nuts everywhere—and it's this crazy nationwide, if not global, push for this polarizing religious fanaticism that's just infecting everything. One of the Baldwin brothers is now preaching? Jesus fucking Christ.
AVC: And there's Kirk Cameron from Growing Pains, who runs a ministry.
MJK: That's what I mean. Whether they're serious or not, it's difficult to say—but it's the kind of thing that only ends in bloodshed. You know what I mean? It's so polarized that there is no gray area, and it comes down to a religious war.
AVC: So you're looking forward to getting out of the country on this next tour?
MJK: No, because it's probably going to be worse for me over there. I don't know what the solution is, other than just hoping that we can weather the storm, and then looking to places like Europe, post-World War I and II, where the communities that survived are the ones that were already surviving: They had their own little localized economy and farmers and trade, just to get through the winter. They're the ones that survived, and have survived, and will survive. So that's kind of the positive. [Laughs.] That's my silver lining in the cloud: starting a wine community in Arizona, hoping that the United States [will go] through an entire saturation of winemaking, and then level out to where it ends up being a cottage industry and people are just surviving locally, no matter what happens with the clowns running things.
AVC: You have a reputation for being reclusive and elliptical, even to people who are close to you. Do you think you're difficult to work with?
MJK: No, not at all. We just don't suffer fools lightly. You know, we're artists, and we really work hard at what we do, and we just assume that when we go to talk to a journalist, they're as passionate about their art as we are about ours. And then you end up talking to this buffoon who has no business managing a Starbucks. [Laughs.] So we just got into this funk right away, doing interviews—we were like, "You know what? Fuck this. I'm not doing this shit." We'd just go out and do what we do, and the people would come one by one and then tell a friend, and they'd tell a friend, and they'd start coming out and seeing what we're about. Eventually, that may catch up to where we have people showing up knowing what we're about, and knowing that this is a conversation between two humans who are passionate about what they do. When that happens, then I'm willing to talk to the guy.
AVC: Do you feel out of touch with your audience?
MJK: For the most part, I have no idea who those people are—especially when we're traveling through Europe. And it's not all our fault; it's a whole series of events. [You play] heavy music, and your record company, which has never owned an album anything like what you're doing, immediately markets you to the obvious stinky kid with the dreadlocks and the B.O. and the urine on his shoes because he's been sleeping in his own filth in a festival in the middle of the rain. They basically market right to that guy. And then you realize the only people showing up to your shows are those primates—these weird, cretin people… Then, let's say you're at a coffee shop, and you've got a friend sitting next to you, and you've been reading some Noam Chomsky, or you're reading The Onion, and you look over and see a bunch of kids [who] look like they could be made of cheese, because there are flies everywhere. And you go, "Hey, you want to go where they're going?" and everybody goes, "Fuck no." And they're wearing Tool shirts. Why would you want to go there? Why would anybody other than those kids wanna go see Tool if that's our representative in that area? So it ends up being a no-win situation. Of course, that's a completely extreme example.
AVC: Well, it is, but Tool exploded into the mainstream during the nü-metal era. Unlike Korn and Limp Bizkit, though, you're still vital. Why do you think that is?
MJK: We've stayed vital among people who got it. But in the areas of the world that weren't exposed to it, it's kind of weird to go back to those places.
AVC: It's still a feat to have a record that debuts at No. 1, in spite of its really long, difficult, challenging songs.
MJK: Oh yeah, absolutely. Believe me, I'm absolutely delighted; I'm absolutely surprised and grateful that there's a lot of people out there that get what's going on. But you know, I'm the negative-Nancy, curmudgeon, glass-half-empty-with-a-leak-in-it guy—which is basically the fuel that fires me up anyway. Without that, we wouldn't have me.
AVC: Is Tool still challenging for you?
MJK: Absolutely, because the challenge for us has always been to find that space where we all meet in the middle. When you're in a rehearsal space, like the one we've been in since day one, in 1990, [you think], "Okay, yeah, I want—I'd love to go this way…" But you can't even let that enter your mind; you've just got to listen to what's happening and then react to what's happening from everybody. And whatever that result is, that's what ends up making it on the album. And in that way, since we're all four completely different individuals who are also growing in completely different ways [and] experiencing different things, that middle spot is going to be moving every time we get together. So in theory, the results should be different every time.
AVC: Looking back, Tool has gone out with Tomahawk, Meshuggah, Isis, Mastodon—that's a pretty forward-thinking lineup of opening acts over the years. Do you think you've had a hand in expanding people's consciousness in that way, as well?
MJK: In a way, yeah. Over the years, we've taken out people that we liked, and as time goes on, of course, all of our musical tastes have gone in different directions. Now we've kind of got it down to where as long as two guys vote for it, we'll take that one. [Laughs.] Don't get me wrong: I like Isis and Mastodon, but I would much prefer to take out Peaches or Autolux or the Yeah Yeah Yeahs; just something that's out of the ordinary, but it's not heavier or darker than Tool. But that's the beauty of our band: We're all such diverse thinkers. So now I get to tour with Mastodon and Isis, and I would have never made that decision. It's great for me, 'cause now I've been exposed to music that I wouldn't have otherwise been exposed to.
AVC: You cited Meshuggah as an inspiration for 10,000 Days—it's definitely there in the sort of rhythmically dense, deceptively complex, almost modal nature of the songs.
MJK: I'm a Meshuggah fan, but I'm not that much of a Meshuggah fan. You know, I grew up listening to Joni Mitchell. The melody is what I gravitate to—and it's my job to listen to what's happening when those guys go down these staccato, rhythmic, insane mathematical paths. It's my job to soften it and bring it back to the center, so you can listen to it without having an eye-ache. [Laughs.]
AVC: You're the human element.
MJK: Not the human element—I'm more the unpredictable, irrational, emotional element.
AVC: Do you ever jump online to read fans' interpretations of your songs?
MJK: Oh, God, no.
AVC: It's amazing, the depth that people go into. The general idea seems to be that you're gradually revealing clues with each new album.
MJK: Isn't that great? They're playing it backwards, and they're like, "You've got to get a Slurpee, but only half-full, and when you're drinking the Slurpee, right at that last slurp, the rhythm of the slurp coincides with…" My God. Are you kidding me?
AVC: Some people think there are three tracks on 10,000 Days that supposedly form one hidden track that's the key to the whole album. It's as if people want to believe there's going to be some ultimate aesthetic payoff.
MJK: [Laughs.] We can barely decide whether we're going to do a baseball cap or a beanie. You know what I mean? Now, granted, if you subscribe to the whole spiritual, energetic level, when you get into that weird, meditative state… I'm trying to think of the word… Sufis? I don't remember—the whirling dervishes. When you get into that weird state, at some point, your body clicks out, and you have a weird out-of-body experience, and so you can tap into those things unconsciously. So if people are reading into those kind of things that basically had nothing to do with us, that are just us clicking in a moment and being true to that whirling-dervish process of emoting with each other, some of that stuff just might naturally, accidentally come out. But it's not in any way a product of our design.
AVC: You were what, 25 when this band started?
MJK: Good God. Yeah, I think it was: 25, 26.
AVC: At that age, it'd be hard to believe that you or anyone would have this grand scheme you're planning to reveal all these albums later.
MJK: [Laughs.] Not at all.
AVC: Where the press is concerned, you're known for being controlling of your public image. Does it bother you when fans do weird things with the band's identity?
MJK: I'm sure we're still victims of our own initial concepts, but initially, because we knew that we were going to be emerging in the wake of Nirvana and getting lost in the shuffle, we wanted to make sure that whatever that first impression [people had] of us was a lasting one. So we whispered instead of yelled; we said no instead of yes—and that worked for us in the beginning. And I think that initial impression was good for us, because you ended up seeing the things we wanted you to see, not something somebody else wanted you to see about us. Of course, the downside is that you have an equal amount of people that called themselves journalists who were denied access and are still bitching about it, saying that we're difficult and hard to reach. [In reality], they didn't do their homework, and we basically shut them down.
AVC: You don't print lyrics, but you make them available online. Why not simply make them part of the package, like your artwork?
MJK: Reading is more of a left-brain process, and listening to music is a right-brain function. And the right-brain function is far more emotional and has softer edges, so when you first hear the album, you should hear it and feel it. When you start "reading" it, then you're thinking it, and you rob yourself of that initial impression of how the sounds affect you. [Laughs.] I'm going to burn some sage right now—I'm about to burn some incense for this conversation. But seriously, I believe that when you go into a gallery or a museum, the most powerful pieces are the ones that don't have the words in the corner that distract you from the larger piece. You know, if the Mona Lisa had "Eat At Joe's" in the corner, that's all you would remember.
AVC: The packaging for 10,000 Days really is remarkable—what sort of negotiating did you have to do with the label to allow it?
MJK: We had to look at the record company and show them, "See, this is what we make when we tour. This is what we make on album sales. We don't need to make albums. You want us to make an album, dinosaur? How's that tar pit doing for you?" If they want to survive into the next millennium, they have to figure out a way, but we get to have fun with our album artwork, because they understand that it's something they have to do to be relevant in this new world order.
AVC: What's in your wine glass in the album's artwork?
MJK: It's a 1963 Burmester port.
AVC: When did your love affair with wine begin?
MJK: I think it was meant to be. I'll backtrack in a second, to give you the history that led me up to planting my first vine, but [after] I planted my first vine, I was at a Thanksgiving dinner with some relatives, and they relayed to me that my great uncle on my father's side, and my father's grandparents, had or have vineyards in what was northern Italy, which became southeast France. But they made wine: Italian guys, northern Italy, making wine, and I had no idea. So, I thought that was kind of synchronous—you know, here I am, finding my way back onto the proper path, having skipped a generation. But, yeah, I think just being a small-town guy on the road, all of a sudden you're watching your accountants and agents and managers walking around with these glasses of red juice that look pretty appealing, and they're oohing and aahing over it while you're, like, stuck with a bag of chips, sniffing your fucking bandmate's ass and feet all the way to fucking Boise. And you're going, "What the fuck's in that glass, and who paid for that?" And, of course, I did. So we just started taking their bottle when they weren't looking, and I was indulging a bit and realized, "Hey, there's something to this." As time went on, I discovered more, and had that kind of epiphany when you actually have that one bottle with the right meal that really makes sense. And then I headed off into my decadent wine-collecting stage, which segued into me looking outside my door in Arizona and looking at the land, going, "Man, this is definitely vineyard property; this could happen." So we started breaking soil.
AVC: To most people, Arizona wouldn't seem like wine country.
MJK: Oh, it's great—we're up about 5,000 feet, 4,000 feet in some spots, and Dick Erath, the guy who pretty much pioneered pinot noir in Oregon, sold his winery and his label just recently and bought land next to some land that I'm buying down in the Wilcox area, in Arizona. So he sees what I see in Arizona, that there's potential for amazing, intense, sun-driven wine.
AVC: So there are very few of you making wine up there?
MJK: Very few, and we're up against a teetotaling Republican community perception of what this is all about. So there are lots of hurdles—but I think we'll be able to navigate them, because at the end of the day, it's going to foster exactly what these people are claiming to want to foster, which is family values, small community, self-sufficient farmers surviving.
AVC: If anything, it'd seem to lend a good name to the area. It's not like you're making bathtub gin.
MJK: Oh, yeah, definitely. That's the thing—if we can make this work, then it's not just busloads of blue-haired geriatrics on a budget [visiting] there to buy a rubber tomahawk and a glass of tea. It's going to be people that want to come through and do a bed and breakfast, buy some local wine and go to a nice restaurant, which there are very few of. But as time goes on, there'll be more competition, and therefore better chefs, better restaurants, people trying a little harder.
AVC: How did you end up in Arizona?
MJK: Kind of by accident. I had a dream where I was supposed to be in this place and I had never seen it; it looked like it might be Arizona, but it didn't look like any of the places I had been there: Phoenix or Flagstaff, neither of which I had any interest in living in. Tim Alexander, the drummer for Primus, used to live in the town that I live in now, Jerome, and he said, "Let's go check out this town; let me show you what it's all about." So I went up there with him and realized, "Oh, this is my dream; this is what I was seeing." Who knows—it could've been that the places I had driven through in Tuscany on tour had at some point stuck in my mind. You know, some rolling hills in southern France or something. But it came out in that dream. So I went, changed my license over, and bought a house.
AVC: Do you have a favorite so far of the wines you've released through your winery, Caduceus?
MJK: I've only released three so far. There's the classic cabernet, which I think is going to be one of my high-end wines. It's a long, long-aging wine that you can lay down; it's definitely an investment, but it's not my favorite. There's the [Nagual de La] NAGA, which is a super Tuscan-style blend, a Sangiovese cabernet; lots of fruit, cherries—a real Brunello di Montalcino-style of wine, which I really like. But the one that's my favorite is kind of an experiment: I took some Shiraz-style Syrah, added just a touch of Malvasia, which is an Italian, white varietal, to it, and it gave it this really approachable nose; you smell it, and it's all these flowers and honey, but then you drink it, and it's like a big Shiraz. So it's a nice introduction to wines, because you can just sit down and have a glass of this, and you don't really have to understand it. It just presents itself to you. But it's not deceiving: Like Yellowtail Shiraz, you get that at the grocery store, and it's basically not even grape juice; it just tastes like wood juice. It's seductive, but it's not really wine. But the Premier Paso, the Shiraz-Malvasia blend, is one of those wines that, if you get a bottle, you're either going to be a fan of wine, or you're not.
AVC: Are you worried about the stigma attached to "celebrity wines"?
MJK: It's going to happen—there's nothing I can do to avoid it. But the one difference that I can see so far, having to prepare for that battle, is that they're not making the wines; they have somebody doing it. I'm making the wines. I'm on tour right now, so I can't be around nearly as much as I'd like, but as soon as I get off break… I mean, I came back from a U.S. tour on [Oct.] 7th, and on the 9th, I was up crushing grapes at 6 a.m. I missed a good portion of the crush throughout September, but I was there for what I could be there for.
AVC: You're also a partner in a restaurant.
MJK: Yeah, in L.A.—Cobras & Matadors.
AVC: How do you stay focused on all these major ventures at once?
MJK: I think of it as planning for the future. I have the energy for it now, and when I don't have the energy for it, I'll back off on what I need to back off on. Right now, I'm doing okay juggling, but yeah, it's definitely something you have to pay attention to. With all the little irons in the fire, some of them fly, some of them don't, but the only way any of them are going to fly is if you're passionate about them and you actually get involved in them and do them. Some people are okay with just putting their name on something and letting it sell. But the proof is in the pudding—especially with wine. They can talk all they want, but if you drink—you open a bottle, and you know.
AVC: Any celebrity wines you recommend? Supposedly Francis Ford Coppola's line is worth trying.
MJK: Oh, yeah—the Coppola wines are actually pretty good. I haven't had anything this year, but what I remember having, it actually was relevant. I would avoid at all costs anything resembling Vince Neil's wine…
AVC: Vince Neil has a wine?
MJK: Oh, good God—you can't even get near the glass. You pour it, and you're like, "Oh, my fucking God—are there pickles in here?"
AVC: You've studied martial arts under Rickson Gracie, who's widely considered one of the greatest practitioners of jiu-jitsu on the planet. What has that training taught you about yourself, your strengths and abilities?
MJK: It's definitely a humbling experience. You realize that, when you're a guy my size, you're going to get your ass kicked no matter what. [Laughs.] I have some skills that I can use, but I'm just a small guy—and it really taught me that when it comes to males and their testosterone levels, and what happens in a situation where those testosterone levels are elevated, there's no amount of reasoning and discipline in the world that can take a middle-skilled or lower-skilled guy and make him realize that it's not okay to hurt somebody. It's kind of like the Stanford Prison Experiment mentality—when it gets to a certain point, it's just pit bulls fighting. I learned that the hard way: You're in there just trying to train, trying to learn, trying to develop your thing, and then all of a sudden, there's this 190-pound guy who just cannot control himself; he does not realize that every day, he bench-presses 300 pounds, and I only weigh 150, dude. So when you push on me, you've got to remember that. They don't remember that.
AVC: So do you teach him a lesson?
MJK: Well, I mean, if I can—if I'm fast enough, yeah. And that's the beauty of jiu-jitsu: If I am fast enough and I am skilled enough, yes, I can teach him a lesson. Generally? No. [Laughs.]
AVC: There's a Tool concert clip floating around on YouTube where you appear to choke a fan who runs onstage to embrace you. Was that for real?
MJK: Yeah, that was a gig where some dickhead got onstage—and it had already been one of those nights where, you know, a lot of things went wrong, and people were testing my patience, and then some kid got on my stage. Sorry!
AVC: Given how little press you do, fans mostly just have these weird, disconnected snapshots of you: Maynard choking a fan; Maynard onstage in kabuki drag; Maynard performing as an evangelical preacher. Is the real Maynard somewhere between all these? You can break out the incense again if you want…
MJK: I'm just going to get in the lotus position for this one—got a little New Age crystal enema going here… Mmm. [Laughs.] But it's all slices—I mean, who the fuck is Christian Bale, really? Does it matter? I think in order for us to be entertainers—and let's face it: We're entertainers; we're not philosophers in any way—we're just basically clowns. That's what we are. So you dress up like a clown, and it makes it easier to be a clown. It allows you to express yourself freely, to step out of your own body and just have fun with the character. Hopefully, somebody gets something out of it. I know I get something out of it. I have fun.
AVC: That's a side of you not many people see: You're actually really funny. For instance, you named your winery after an ancient symbol for healing, but your vineyards, Merkin, are named for a pubic wig.
MJK: [Laughs.] It's about time somebody fuckin' got that! Jesus Christ, I thought I was alone out here.
AVC: Even in Tool, there's always been this contrast between the really dark, serious music and these song titles that are completely ridiculous.
MJK: Yeah, you know—talking about adolescent anal rape by a family member while I'm wearing a fucking Bozo The Clown wig with kabuki makeup: "Are those real tits? Did he get real tits put on?"
AVC: Do you wish more people paid attention to that humorous aspect of what you do?
MJK: No. I mean, it might be interesting to know that I was involved in comedy: I was on a couple of episodes of Mr. Show. I was friends with Bill Hicks—we were going to do a tour together before he died. Once again, it's just an element of discovery. It's not my job to educate you about all this stuff. You either get it or you don't. If you read up, and you're a person who has enough of a knowledge base and a frame of reference, then you're probably going to get some of the jokes. In the big picture, it doesn't really matter; there's plenty of jokes and humor out there for other people. My big thing is, for Christmas, I always buy people subscriptions to The Onion—that's my big present every year. And for the most part, my friends get it. But I love having that newspaper sitting out in places where somebody picks it up and doesn't know what it is, and just starts to get fucking pissed off: "How can they say this?!" In a similar way, I'm not sure if you've ever heard The Phil Hendrie Show here in L.A., but that's the most entertaining two hours of driving you'll ever have, just listening to people get worked up: "You can't say Thomas Jefferson was a rapist! You can't teach that in school!" "Yes, I have to teach the kids; it's the truth…" [Laughs.] People just freaking the fuck out.
AVC: You originally moved to L.A. to start Tool—what drew you to the city?
MJK: I was working in pet stores on the East Coast, in Cambridge, [Mass.], and I just decided that I was sick of the cold weather up there, and that horrible drizzle that just continues on into August. So I ended up hooking up with somebody out here who had a line on some pet stores that I could get into and do my thing. I did a lot of interior work—rearranging and organizing stuff in the stores; I did layouts and that kind of stuff. So I moved out here to do that, and of course, I got fired right away. So I started working on sets, and, you know, when I first moved out here, I had met Adam [Jones, Tool guitarist] and some people, and they heard me singing on some old demo that I had done way back in college, and they wanted to start a band, but I was reluctant. I kind of wanted to do it to prove a point, but I also ended up saying yes to it just because, you know, I wanted to fucking shout; I just wanted to let it out, all the frustration of having been fired, and I lost my apartment, my dog got run over, my girlfriend left, car got repoed—you know, all that shit like within the space of a month or two. So I was ready to scream. Ready to "emote."
AVC: You moved around a lot as a kid. Do you feel like your quest for discipline—your stint in the Army, the spatial-design work you did in school, the martial-arts training, the interest in philosophy—stems from a desire to plant roots somewhere?
MJK: Yeah, I think it might be, and I think that's what I've found in Arizona. I finally got up there, got into the traffic, met some people who, as right-wing as they are, are still more grounded than anybody you meet at a fucking opening in L.A. And so it's a little refreshing—although, you know, you'd like to think they would be okay with your brother's gay marriage. But, other than that, it's… I kind of refer to Arizona as the evil anti-California. You know how there'll be these superheroes whose egos got split in half, and they're kind of fighting each other, but they're actually mirror images of each other and completely integral? That's basically Arizona and California.
AVC: You're a dad, and your son, obviously, is growing up in very different circumstances from you. What sort of values do you want to pass down to him?
MJK: I think it's really important for people who have some kind of access to this industry, or some kind of success, to understand that this is not the real world. If you really want your children to grow up in a stable environment that's going to foster actual skills that will translate globally, you can't do it here. Either that, or you have to put them in a situation where they're going to grow up in a different way.
AVC: When you say "here," you're talking about L.A.?
MJK: Yeah, L.A.—it's just a bad place. It's the kind of place that fosters drug-addicted kids by the time they're 17. There's just too much ego stimulus here at too early an age, and all of a sudden, that novelty wears off a little, and the attention they get—you know, because attention is not recognition; attention is attention—starts to wear off when they get into those early teens, so they start turning to another stimulus. And pretty soon, they're fucked-up. [Laughs.] You know, not everybody can bounce back like Drew Barrymore.