On a cold and rainy Belgian morning late last year, I was nursing a particularly nasty hangover when one of my fellow patrons in the hotel restaurant struck up a conversation.
"You are a music journalist, yes?" asked a paunchy, balding, grinning German gentleman in heavily accented English. "Do you know Maynard from Tool?" I explained that I knew Maynard James Keenan's work, but not the man himself. "Why do you ask?" I wondered. "Because he is the same age as me!" answered the German, still grinning.
Whenever Tool come up in conversation, things inevitably get a little bit strange. Ever since it emerged from the smog-choked Los Angeles basin with 1992's Opiate EP, the multiplatinum art-metal quartet has radiated a distinct aura of "otherness." The band — whose lineup consists of vocalist Keenan, guitarist Adam Jones, bassist Justin Chancellor and drummer Danny Carey — has consistently kept the mainstream at arm's length while cultivating a deeply mysterious image. In the process, they've managed to acquire one of the most diverse and obsessive fan bases in rock. You probably couldn't pick a Tool devotee out of a lineup, yet they always seem to pop up, wanting to discuss some obscure Tool-related factoid (as did my German friend), or an intensely cogitated theory about a certain Tool song, video or piece of album artwork.
Like one of those gigantic spaceships in that Nineties sci-fi flick Independence Day, Tool have spent nearly 15 years hovering impressively and impenetrably over the music world, while those of us on the ground below debate the "meaning" behind the mystifying craft. Are these guys using music, as they themselves have claimed, to tap into a higher spiritual consciousness? Or is this some kind of elaborate put-on, with lyrics and images offering indecipherable "clues" that ultimately lead you on a journey to nowhere? Or are Tool simply the logical contemporary extension of the Seventies progressive-rock movement, in all its pretentious, technically proficient glory? With the arrival of every new Tool release, the debate is reignited.
10,000 Days, the band's latest album, will surely inspire more of the same. The release is filled with epic songs (the 11-track disc clocks in at nearly 80 minutes) based on hypnotically complex riffs and anguished vocals, and cloaked in typically oblique artwork. 10,000 Days isn't a great departure from what the group has done in the past, though it may be the densest and heaviest Tool record yet. On tracks like "Jambi," "Lipan Conjuring" and "Intension," the distinction between guitars, bass, drums and vocals is almost completely obliterated at times by the sheer density of sound.
"With us, it's a ball of concentrated music," says Jones. "We all kind of allow each other to play each other's parts," adds Chancellor. "It's never like, 'You're the guitarist, you're the drummer, I'm the bassist.' Even Dan plays melodies sometimes, you know? The idea is that you can do anything in this band."
Though their intertwined instrumental melodies, telepathic rhythmic shifts and sprawling arrangements often sound like they could be the work of hell's own jam band, the fact is that Tool's songs are meticulously mapped out before the bandmates even enter the recording studio — which is one of the reasons Tool tend to take so long between albums.
"We rarely write in the studio," says Carey. "Everything's already completely arranged before we go in. That way, we can really focus on getting the recording right."
"Justin and I are always writing, and then Dan and Maynard bring in their own ideas about how to approach what they do," says Jones of the band's writing process. "And then we tear it apart like wolves, and we study it and study it and study it. We go down all these different paths and explore it. And then we go, 'OK, this path and this path — that really works.' And then we start connecting the dots. It's a long process, but it works, man. It fucking works."
As on previous records like 2001's Lateralus and 1996's Aenima, Keenan's vocals on 10,000 Days often sit so low in the mix that it can be difficult to make out his words, at least on the first few listens. This, like just about everything with Tool, is completely intentional.
"I'll talk to people from other bands," says Jones, "and they'll say, 'Your sound is so huge! How do you get that?' And then I hear their stuff, and the vocals are way out front and the band's in the back, and that just makes the band sound little. It's a fine line. Maynard is an instrument, but you have to hear what he's saying, as well."
"It's definitely not a Backstreet Boys mix," Keenan agrees. "I think sometimes the lyrics tend to take you out of the headspace of feeling the song. That's kind of why we don't print the lyrics to begin with — reading is a thinking process, and if you're looking at the words, you're not really listening to what's going on. Also, in the song, if you're distracted by a very specific story line, then you're listening to the story and not the song. We're not doing 'Paradise by the Dashboard Light.' We're not really that kind of band."
Which is not to say that the enigmatic singer doesn't invest a great deal of thought and emotion into his lyrics, or that there's no particular theme or meaning behind 10,000 Days. "It's all about my trips to 7-11," says Keenan with a wry grin. "We toyed with calling it I Smell Poo, but we couldn't agree on how to spell 'Poo,'" he chuckles. "Star Wars 7 — that was another possibility. We figured it would make for a good tie-in commercially."
All joking aside, Keenan says that the album reflects his increasing disillusionment in the wake of George W. Bush's re- election, and his frustration with what he sees as an American populace that seems unwilling — despite a steady stream of scandals and screw-ups — to get off their collective ass and drive Bush and his cronies out of Washington.
"On our last few albums, there's been more of a metaphysical, attempt-to-open-your-third-eye kind of approach, having faith that people will find a way to expand their consciousness and wake up to the world that they live in," he explains. "For some reason, we felt like we could help 'em with that. And I think over the last few years, I've either gotten older — or become the grumpy guy who keeps your ball when it bounces in his yard — but I think I've lost a little faith watching the whole political thing.
"Looking back, I was just a little kid living in Ohio when there were students getting gunned down on campus because they were speaking their minds," he continues, referring to the Kent State massacre of 1970, when U.S. National Guard troops opened fire on a group of college students protesting the Vietnam War. "And it seems like nowadays, people sign a petition online or they send an e-mail. That's about as much as they can do, and it's a little depressing to me. So I've noticed that this album has a lot more sadness on it. We've been joking about it in a way, but this is kind of, like, our blues album. There's still a lot of hope in it, and there's still a lot of positive, fun, silly stuff. But if there's a theme to it, it'd be, 'Hey, you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink. I have witnessed this first-hand — and therefore, you're on your own.'"
"If you really sat down with the four of us," says Adam Jones, munching on pasta salad at a recent Revolver photo shoot, "you'd find out that we all listen to very different music. We all have different influences. We all have different political views. We all have our own thing, you know? But what we do is meet in the center and explore that area — that's the thing that works, and we're very happy with that." The band is indeed made up of four distinctive personalities. Jones comes off as articulate and self-depreciating, with a gleam in his eye that's part mad scientist, part merry prankster. Justin Chancellor, the band's lone Englishman, seems quiet and intense; between Lateralus and 10,000 Days, the bassist took up surfing and sailing in order to "clear his head" for work on the new album. Danny Carey is a jazz fan with a boisterous laugh and a matter-of-fact manner of speaking that reflects his Kansas upbringing. And then there's Maynard James Keenan ..."
While diehard Tool fans understand that the band's musical magic is the product of its four-part alchemy, the media generally tends to focus upon Keenan. Though small and self-contained in person, Keenan casts a large shadow with his outspoken interviews and his charismatic stage presence — not to mention his penchant for performing in a variety of strange wigs, costumes and the occasional pair of prosthetic breasts. For the past six years, Keenan has also done double duty (and garnered additional critical raves) as the frontman of A Perfect Circle, a project he founded with guitarist-songwriter Billy Howerdel. For Keenan, the concept of downtime doesn't seem to exist. After the Lateralus tour cycle, for instance, when the rest of his Tool mates were recharging their batteries, Keenan was busy recording and touring with APC. "It was, like, the second time he jumped right out of our bus and into that thing," says Carey with a laugh. "He hasn't had any time off in, like, eight years."
"The conversations that I'm having with those musicians are completely different from the conversations that I'm having with these musicians, so it's pretty easy," says Keenan of splitting time between APC and Tool. "If you're a creative person, you realize that that creative focus is there for the taking, if you just tap into it. The energy is there, and the creativity is just an infinite pool of light that you can draw from."
Though his A Perfect Circle commitments kept Keenan out of the Tool rehearsal space during much of the writing of 10,000 Days, Jones says the singer's absence didn't hold the band back at all. "About half of the songs were forming while Maynard was on tour, and that was fine," the guitarist recalls. "When we're writing, there's usually points where Maynard's going, 'OK ... now where are you going with this?' It's good having him there, but it's tedious for him to be there while we're still working all of this out. To use a painting analogy, Maynard can paint something in a day or in a week. I have to paint, and then repaint, and then I go, Do I really like it? And then I sand this part, paint some more ... and we drive each other crazy like that. So him being on tour gave us both the space to approach what we do best the way we do it."
Still, Keenan admits that juggling both bands finally wore him out. "I've been going back and forth with Tool and A Perfect Circle for a while," he says. "But Billy is going to be doing his own thing now, and I'll be focusing mainly on Tool." According to Keenan, making music was the easy part, but dealing with all the attendant industry crap was really starting to bring him down. "It's just too much energy to deal with two completely different sets of lawyers and record companies," he explains. "To try and explain who you are to a whole new set of record company people who weren't there the last time and are afraid of losing their jobs, who aren't really going to go out on a limb for you and don't have any idea what you're doing.
"I mean, none of these people know what I do," he continues, vitriol rising in his veins. "It's like, I'll tell them, 'I have a winery,'" and they're like, 'You do? Well, what the fuck do you do? How are you getting paid?' Just type my name into the Internet, and you'll find out what I'm up to. Fuck! I mean, there's so much going on in my life you would think that a publicist would be milking all of that, and see an opportunity to get that out there, because the record company is the one whose survival hinges on the sale of our record. I can go tour. I'm gonna make my money on the road — all I've gotta do is get onstage, and I will pay my rent, and everything's fine. If I don't sell one more fucking record, I can still make a living performing. But the record company needs to know what I'm up to. And when they don't, it fucking blows my mind!
"You know that whole 'end of the world' scenario, where you want to gather people together to go to your little so-called oasis or island?" Keenan asks. "There's a hell of a lot of people I'm not bringing. You know how to heal somebody? You know how to cook? Do you know how to hunt? Do you know how to raise babies? Do you know all about gardening and herbs? Great, you can come with me. But if you just draw a paycheck at a publishing company, I'm gonna eat you. You're dinner. I'm sorry, you're gonna be in the compost pile, and when it comes time to plant next year's crops, you're gonna be the fertilizer."
As of Press Time, Tool's first live performance this year will be in late April at the Coachella Festival in Indio, California; the band will spend much of the spring and summer playing festivals in Europe, followed by a headlining tour of the U.S. in the fall. "We'll just see how the record does," says Jones, modestly. Adds Carey: "We just hope that, if people like the record, they'll come see us. People know they're going to see a good show when they come to see Tool. We've established that over the past 10 years or so, so they know they can't go wrong there. Even if they don't like the record much, they know they're going to see the next best thing to Pink Floyd." While it's weird to hear a band that's sold millions of records downplaying commercial expectations for their new album, the fact is that the music industry has changed considerable since Lateralus was released. "It's hard, the way the industry is now, to do what we do and still fit in," Carey admits. "We are one of the last truly alternative bands, now," he says with a hearty chuckle. "Making 13-minute tracks is pretty alternative, I think!"
And, then, of course, there's the issue of whether or not the iPod Generation has the attention span necessary to digest a work as dense as 10,000 Days. "Well, they still have the option, you know?" shrugs Chancellor. "We're providing them with the option to do that, rather than just providing them with single tracks because that's 'what's happening.'"
"I'm not in their heads," says Keenan of young music consumers. "I'm just not that guy. All I can do is do what I do, and do what feels natural, and be in that space that makes sense to me. If, for some reason, that translates to a 16-year-old, then I've still got a career. When it doesn't, I'm a dinosaur and I'm irrelevant, and I'll probably be OK with that. The focus [when making a record] is to be honest with where you are right now, and report the stories of where you are and how you feel right now.
And if you can honestly report those feelings and capture those moments, then it's a great album. Don't worry about what you did back on previous albums, because your state of mind there is not where you are now. If we try to repeat the process that we had at 25 at the age of 35-plus, then we're being dishonest, and it's not going to come across as genuine."
That "be here now" attitude has definitely served Tool well over the years and may be one reason that their legion of fans keeps growing, even as the band continues to defy categorization. "We're so lucky," marvels Jones. "At our shows, you look out and you've got the older generation and we've got our peers and we've got the younger generation, and then we've got the tots that are just coming into it."
"We won the lottery," says Keenan. "The thing is, a lot of people win the lottery, and they just take all the money to Vegas and wind up drunk and broke. We won the lottery, and then we reinvested, and we reinvested, and we reinvested. We maintained focus. The goal wasn't to win the lottery. The goal was to take that success and work with it as a tool. And that's what we're still doing."