"Do you feel like you could be doing more? Does what we're doing even matter? Are we just mindless entertainment for people that like to bang their heads?"
Aaron Turner, guitarist-bellower for hypno-metal band Isis, has some serious questions for Tool, whose dressing room he has just walked to from his first-ever tour bus, part of his first-ever arena tour, opening a month of dates on Tool's ginormous 10,000 Days spectacle. Devoutly underground for a decade — running the independent-as-fuck Hydra Head label, designing his own album covers, playing eight-minute-long art-metal monoliths that defy pop music's short attention span — Turner seems unsure about how to deal with his increased profile and opportunities. So who better for him to interview than Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan and guitarist Adam Jones, who have spent 15 years being just as creatively stubborn, releasing singles in 13/8 and album covers that wiggle when you tilt them? And who better to share this formidable task with him than Isis guitarist Michael Gallagher, who has clearly been dazzled by the band. "Seeing Tool on this tour makes me realize that they are like the Led Zeppelin of our times," he says.
Tool's dressing room is lit in the uneasy glow of those big spherical light bulbs that surround dressing-room mirrors, but the band do their best to make the space cozy — Devo blasts on a laptop, and Keenan's friendly Yorkie greets everyone with a nuzzle. Even though Turner and Gallagher have loved the band for some time, they still see Tool less as musical role models and more as a living testament to the power of consistency, left-of-center politics, and the importance of retaining creative control. "You guys put a great amount of effort and attention to detail in everything you do," says Turner to Maynard and Jones. "And when you look and listen to the results, it's very obvious that it's four individuals that's comprising a whole that's moving wholeheartedly in one direction."
"We split everything four ways. We compromise. And when we fight, we fight." Keenan replies, "Naked, though."
MICHAEL GALLAGHER If you guys weren't musicians, what do you think you'd be doing with yourselves?
MAYNARD JAMES KEENAN Walking the yard one hour a day to get some sunshine.
AARON TURNER You did a lot of video-based stuff and film-based stuff…
ADAM JONES That's what I was doing, but I'd see myself doing some kind of art or music, even on the lowest level. [When] I met Maynard, he was working in movies. I was working in movies. We both had some kind of artistic direction, which is why it was a good collaboration.
TURNER Do you feel like music waylaid your other aspirations?
JONES He hasn't read our bio…
KEENAN Living in L.A., I was working in pet stores and working on sets and stuff like that as … uh, Val Kilmer's stunt double. I saw Adam was involved in a band, and it didn't look like it was going well. It looked like it was kind of a chore. Adam kept bugging me to be in the band, and I just had no interest.
JONES Well, we were talking about doing a joke band.
KEENAN Right. And that's the only thing that really got me hooked into wanting to do it.
JONES And then you played me a tape, and I was like, "Dude, you can sing! Fuck!" So we started putting a joke band together.
TURNER So Tool's kind of like Dianetics then. It was, like, a joke when it started out, and it's become an international conglomerate.
KEENAN Yep. We are the L. Ron Hubbard of L.A. music.
JONES I've always been in bands, and the reason I always bumped heads with people is they took themselves too seriously. They wanted to make it. And it was like, "We suck! We're never gonna make it. Cut it out. Let's just have fun."
TURNER In L.A., especially, so many people aspire to make it. But it seems that the people who are trying the hardest to make it have the least success in that endeavor. And the people who are doing it purely for the love of the music, if they persevere, are eventually the ones…
KEENAN That's why our joke band is successful.
TURNER It was kind of the same for us, in a way. We never had any expectations. We're not quite in the position you guys are, but we never imagined we'd be doing as much as we have thus far.
JONES That's why I really like your band. I can see that. We didn't worry about radio. And we're still not worried about it. We're gonna finish the record. Then we'll worry about what we'll send to radio. It should be from your heart and not your head.
KEENAN Although every band is different… There's no possible way to map it out. So, definitely, part of the plan should be when In-N-Out Burger approaches you to buy your band, whether you should do it.
JONES You can see where [a band's] head is right away. When I first saw your band, I saw you loved your music. You know why? Because you have shitloads of discipline. You have 100 guys onstage, and you can see the ego level is very low… [Looks at Turner] Except for you. [Laughs]
TURNER Do you feel, being an artist, that you have an obligation to communicate important messages that aren't being said elsewhere?
KEENAN The only kind of gay metaphor that I can throw out at this point would be: Rather than mapping exactly how you're supposed to build this structure, I'm just gonna present you a hammer. If you wanna beat someone over the head with it or build a structure with it in your way, that's fine. But we're just presenting — no pun intended — tools. If you can break down some of the crap that we're waffling on about, and get something from it, that very process is what we're trying to teach. Because that very process is gonna lead you to questioning things around you and just becoming a more conscious being in this world. There's a huge bulk of the people out there that just are never gonna get that… And those are the ones we're gonna sell the new chocolate footlong called "Prison Sex" at In-N-Out Burger.
JONES As far as being social or political, the social part of it has to be in a way that it reaches everyone. And in a way that you can go, This is how I feel, but you should take that and apply it to what you feel. Maynard doesn't print the lyrics in the album artwork. And it's really cool because then people can make up their own conclusions. Hopefully, it's positive.
TURNER Do you guys ever feel that, what you do, no matter how positive a force it may be in people's lives, it's just overshadowed by all this other crap?
KEENAN We're not scholars. We don't have any type of degree. We're not debate-team captains. But we're definitely trying to push an element of "Just question things. Draw your own conclusions." If we can foster that in just a few people, then we have done our job.
TURNER I put that question to you guys because it's a question I put to myself: Is what I'm doing enough? We're offering people a different perspective on things. I think that's invaluable. But sometimes you can't help but feel like, Wow, I'm just fucking playing metal for people to beat each other up over.
KEENAN It's like the story of the blind men feeling the elephant. They're all gonna describe a different part of it differently. But you, as a world traveler and musician, get to go, Whoa! What is this? [Pretends he's stroking an elephant's penis] You get to travel around and see different perspectives. As an artist, it's your fuckin' job to report your impressions of those things. It just is. You're supposed to be taking this thing and trying to just translate a story. You're a storyteller. The only music nowadays that's actually popular that doesn't have a story attached to it is techno and rave. And there's drugs attached to it. And you're making up your own story in your head.
TURNER Were you in the army?
TURNER You're coming from a fairly liberal point of view. Do you feel like it was really important to have lived on the other side?
KEENAN It was absolutely an important thing. Because, as you know, there's some pretty dumb people in the world. And the more dumber they are, the more violent or reactionary they can be. And so you need to defend yourself. Put your fists up if somebody's gonna swing at your face, for God's sakes. So, having been in the military, I understand that there are monsters in the world. We're all made from the same stuff, but some of 'em just don't have the direction and education. And environmentally and historically, that's just not gonna be fixed. There's just too much crap in the way. So no amount of hugging and flowers in the barrels of guns is gonna change any of that shit.
TURNER Considering the cycle we're in now, and the position that the government has currently put itself in, would you enlist in the army today?
KEENAN Hell, no.
GALLAGHER I don't think I would either.
KEENAN Vietnam was when I was a kid. I was living around the Kent State area, so I was right around the area when the students were being gunned down while I was playing Army with my friends seven miles away. [When I enlisted,] all that backlash of Vietnam was settling down. You would think that based on what had happened in that jungle setting, that we would be doing that tropical/jungle training. And we weren't. In 1982, we were doing desert training. There was an agenda back then for this area [the Middle East]. They're so far ahead of us in what they're telling us and not telling us. There's no way to see the big picture. So once again, our idea is to just drop back and be a conscious human being.
GALLAGHER My perception of you guys in the beginning is that you've always done everything your way …
JONES That's an outside perspective. You have to realize the decision process we go through, the difficulty we go through to find that middle space where we are all compromising. Because that's the process we take — we just don't have the headspace or the time to worry about what other people say. This is the only way we can do this. It's not a conscious decision like, I'm not gonna listen to you, and I'm not gonna do it that way. It's just the way it is. It's just the way this big barge floats through the bay.
GALLAGHER Has that caused problems with labels?
JONES There's tons of manipulation on that side and tons of people taking advantage of your ignorance. Our hands have been burned in the pan so many times.
TURNER The reason that it's an interesting question for us is that [Isis] come from a realm where those pressures are relatively low, but we've come to realize how many outside pressures there are on a band.
KEENAN "You guys should lose that member because he's holding you back."
TURNER Or, "You guy should write shorter songs." Or, "You guys should write more conventional structures." In pretty much every way, you've defied conventional norms. And like you said, it's pretty much your natural M.O., but in another way, you're in a world where it's almost impossible to escape those pressures. So to us, from an outside perspective, that's admirable. To us, it's interesting to see that in a world where everyone basically plays by the same rules, you guys have gone upstream from that consistently.
KEENAN The analogy that you always hear when you have to sit around listening to people constantly bringing up Limp Bizkit and Fred Durst to you over and over and over and over again is that old Chinese proverb: Patiently sitting on the banks of the river, watching the bodies of your enemies float by. We're not necessarily going upstream. We're sitting still; the stream's just moving. And that's what's kind of messed people up — "Aren't you struggling?" No, we're not struggling. We're just sitting in the space that we sit in, and everything's moving around us.
TURNER To me, it seems that the bands that are most resistant to outside pressures are often the ones with the greatest longevity. The Melvins, for instance. Those guys have been through every label situation in the world, and they've pretty much always stuck to their guns. And they've been a band for, what, 20 years?
GALLAGHER Twenty-three now.
JONES They're one of those bands. Joe Strummer, you know, no one gives a shit. Then when he dies… The Ramones. Johnny Cash. Oh, now he's this big phenomenon. People take it for granted. The Melvins will definitely be that band. [Singer-guitarist] Buzz [Osborne] will kick the bucket or [drummer] Dale [Crover]. Then they'll break up, and people will be going, "Oh, my God, the history of grunge. They were part of that whole thing."
TURNER Well, it's a business thing. Primarily, bands are interested in making art and making music. And most musicians aren't cut out to be business practitioners. So, very often, they get taken advantage of, and they don't know what the fuck is going on.
KEENAN Which half the time is a good thing, because you give those people too much money and they stop making fuckin' music. They implode. They don't know how to handle it. If Axl Rose was still fuckin' hungry, there'd probably be an awesome third album. Go back to pumpin' gas because it was waaaay better.
TURNER From the realm we come from, we've seen a lot of so-called "indie" labels basically perpetuating major-label scams on really young bands, like signing them to eight-album deals.
JONES It's, like, life. Anything that you choose to do and any kind of success you have, you're gonna have those obstacles. You're gonna have those people hanging out with you for the wrong reasons. You're gonna have corruption in your bookkeeping and all that stuff. It's just part of the chaos you have to deal with. My experience talking with other bands is they don't wanna deal with business issues. "Don't tell me anything bad. Just tell me what's good, and hopefully I won't end up on VH1 going, 'Had it all. Lost it all. Now I'm trying to get it back.'" [He quotes an exchange from the 1988 doc Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years:] "What happens if you don't make it?" "What do you mean?"
KEENAN "You have to see our band, because you would understand if you would see our band, because we're gonna make it. Here's some tickets that we had to pay for. We're playing at the Whiskey." You guys didn't have to go through that pay-to-play thing, did you?
GALLAGHER No. Thank God.
JONES Every club was like that. "We give you the tickets. You pay us for them, and you have to go sell 'em to people."
GALLAGHER Fuck that.
TURNER I'd rather play to nobody.
KEENAN "Well, it's worth it to buy the tickets because once these people see you, dude, it's gonna blow up!"
JONES This is a mean thing, but when our band started getting popular, we started meeting a lot of A&R people, so we'd keep their cards. And then you go see some cover band and go, "Dude, call me tomorrow!" and hand 'em the card and walk out. [Laughs] We did that all the time.
KEENAN "You guys are amazing. Give me a call. My name iiiiiis..."
GALLAGHER In playing an arena or amphitheater situation, do you feel like you guys are able to connect with the fans as much as you would like?
KEENAN The club setting is really intimate, and there's a nice energy in that setting. But when you do an amphitheater, the way that it's set up, it just ends up being more, um, money. [Everyone laughs]
TURNER Is it old hat to you guys now, or do you still get a charge when you walk out and there are, like, 20,000 people screaming their heads off?
KEENAN Who needs Viagra?
JONES I love it. I get weepy.
KEENAN Except for the creepy guy in the third row with the binoculars. What do you need to see?
GALLAGHER When you guys are waiting before the encore…
TURNER The lighter routine!
GALLAGHER I seen that shit when I was 15 a hundred times. But the first time I saw it [on this tour], I was like, Oh, my God! It was moving to me, and I had nothing to do with it.
TURNER There's rock clichés that must be annoying, and there's rock clichés that must be gratifying and invigorating…
JONES The one that kills me is if you go to a place where you go, God, I used to see shows here, and now I'm playing here. Rosemont Horizon in Chicago. I've been there so many times. Van Halen, David Bowie…
KEENAN I fell asleep to Supertramp at the Meadowlands, and we're playing there.
GALLAGHER Was that with .38 Special?
KEENAN No, it was Heart.
GALLAGHER I saw 'em in '83 with .38 Special. That was the first time I smelled weed.
JONES [Buzz said to me], "Oh, man, those Isis guys smoke crops of weed."
GALLAGHER I certainly smoked a lot on that tour we did [with the Melvins].
JONES Well, Buzz is prone to exaggeration, as well.
GALLAGHER And moreover, on that first show [of the Melvins/Isis tour], I stumbled backstage and confessed things to him.
TURNER The Melvins are someone you collaborated with. Do you get intimidated when you play with people like that simply because you revere their music so much?
JONES That was comfortable because I've known those guys forever. I bet if we did something with some other huge band, like someone we really grew up with…
TURNER Like Robert Fripp [of King Crimson]? You're supposed to collaborate with him, are you not?
JONES That, I just felt lucky. And he was like, "OK, you'll have me for a day." And I was like, "Look, I shine the brightest after, like, a month of analyzing my own shit." And he says, "Well, I shine my best after the second take." You guys have jammed with people, right?
TURNER I went and played with [dark ambient pioneer] Lustmord. And to me, that was kind of intimidating 'cause Lustmord is a legend in his own right. This guy's made records with Throbbing Gristle, for Christ's sake, and I'm half his guy's age.
JONES Well, Maynard did a song with Bowie. ["Bring Me the Disco King," which appeared on the soundtrack to the 2003 movie Underworld.]
TURNER That's pretty heavy.
KEENAN You know what you did to get here, so there's camaraderie when you're actually sitting in a room with a person. You go, OK, this is not a big deal. But then you hear that person actually unleash this stuff that you're familiar with, and you remember how good they are for that moment.
JONES I think my moment of going guh was when [guitarist] Alex Lifeson from Rush came back to see me and to tell me I was great and he had been listening to our records. 2112 is the record I woke up to. That record where you go, Oh, my God! Music! My tongue was all thick, and I didn't know what to say to him.
TURNER That's how I felt around Buzz the first time we played shows with him, I have to admit.
KEENAN I'm totally gonna tell him that. He's gonna make you feel dumb about it.
JONES You know what was nice about this [interview]? We just had a conversation, like we were in the back of your bus talkin' about music. Instead of, "So, uh, what do you guys think about Limp Bizkit now?"
TURNER Well, thanks to you guys, we get the fucking annoying, "What's Tool like?" question every goddamn interview.
GALLAGHER I think you guys should give me some security to keep your fans away from me. "No, I'm not gonna get you backstage, I'm not gonna take your $100 to get you backstage."
KEENAN We'll make a special Dumbass Pass. Then you can take the hundred bucks and usher them into this corral. You walk into the place, and all of a sudden the bucket of blood: "Hahaha… Hey, dummy!"