This feature was originally published in 2008.
More complex and multi-textured than Tool's 1991 debut EP Opiate, the group's full-length follow-up Undertow, released two years later, marked the band's first major step in musical evolution. It also turned them into rock stars. The vulnerability of songs like "Sober" and "Prison Sex" struck a nerve with alternative-rock fans, and the overall heaviness of the tunes appealed to a new generation of open-minded metal kids. Not that Tool were catering to either. As always, they were driven solely by the need to experiment and explore and were limited only by their playing abilities at the time. So they made the most of what they had, crafting songs that were alternately dense and spacious, blending the arty excursions of Jane's Addiction, the bombastic riffage of Black Sabbath, and the offbeat time signatures of Rush. Throughout the LP, Paul D'Amour's deep, booming bass lines keep the music brooding and Maynard James Keenan's vocals are passionate and confessional. On "Intolerance" he rails against his Southern Baptist upbringing, and in "Prison Sex" he addresses the sexual abuse he suffered as a child. Undertow isn't Tool's most musically accomplished album, but some consider it their most emotionally powerful.
MAYNARD JAMES KEENAN We had just done Opiate and people seemed to be responding to it, and now it felt like we had to back it up and do something better, which was very tough. Back then we didn't have ProTools, so you didn't have the luxury of being able to do several takes and then go back and sort through the stuff. You had that two-inch tape, so you're constantly rewinding and you're on an emotional roll and you have to stop and start over all the time. The emotion might be captured on the tape, but the performance sucked. And then you might have an awesome performance but the emotion is null and void. So during that recording process, I really started to feel like, Oh, shit, this is no longer about the raw stuff. This is a different kind of thing.
DANNY CAREY Working on Opiate with [producer] Sylvia Massey had gone so well we decided to use her again, and we also had the same assistant producer and engineer, so it was a real similar vibe. But because we had a little bit of success with Opiate, we didn't feel like we had to get in and out of the studio in three days or we were gonna be broke, so we took about three weeks recording it. We had enough faith in the success that was gonna be coming to us that we decided to take a little bit longer, and it shows.
KEENAN If we tried to pull some of the stuff now that we did back then, we'd all be in jail or deported. We did this vivisection benefit at the Hollywood Palladium, and when we came out, we had these acoustic guitars and we started playing "Maynard's Dick" for this sold-out crowd that wasn't there to see us at all. Then, right in the middle of the song, we all grabbed these five-dollar acoustic guitars we had bought in Tijuana. There was a whole stack of them by the side of the stage, and we just started smashing them and pulled out chainsaws and tore the hell out of these things. I had a shotgun with blanks in it, and I was shooting it inside the Palladium. Flames were leaping out of the barrel towards the curtain. Here are all these horrified people there to save the bunnies and I'm singing, "Life feeds on life." They thought we were all assholes. Of course, we were amused with ourselves and that's all that really mattered. We thought we were very clever … and still do.
ADAM JONES When we first got approached by this girl to play that show, she was wearing leather Docs and talking about how killing animals was wrong. And we're like, Umm, you're wearing leather Docs. So we went the other way with it. Life feeding on life is very natural. And after we did this big thing, the same girl wearing leather Docs went, "Oh, that was sooo great." She totally missed the point. That performance was the birth of "Disgustipated," which is the industrial track at the end of Undertow. And when we did that, we bought two pianos for $100 a pop through [classifieds-only newspaper] The Recycler. The guy that ran Grand Master Studio has a huge indoor parking lot. We were like, "Hey, can we shoot shotguns at pianos and record it?" And he just goes, "Sure, just clean up when you're done." Since then, people from other bands have come up to us and gone, "Oh, man, we've seen your shotgun holes in the wall."
CAREY We put out Undertow and at first not that much happened. Then we went on the road with the Rollins Band, and every night we could tell we were winning over hundreds of new fans. After that tour ended, we were lucky enough to have a connection who got us on Lollapalooza, which at that time was the only tour of that sort in the world. We went from playing clubs to getting thrown on the main stage halfway through the tour. All of a sudden we were playing to 20,000 people a night. I had so much adrenaline, I'd count off the first song and then it would seem like I'd blink my eyes and it was over. We got a lot of attention for that, so MTV played our video for "Sober" one time and they got bombarded with requests. We watched our record go from nowhere up to No. 50 on the charts, and it stayed there for two years.
JONES Contractually, the record label was supposed to talk to us about any sort of publicity stunt they pulled on our behalf, especially with us paying for part of it. But without telling us, they made little kid T-shirts for the single "Prison Sex" with our Tool wrench logo on there, which is actually a phallic symbol. So the label was going to send the shirt to all the radio stations because Nirvana did that with one of their songs. And we're going, "Well, first off, you didn't even talk to us about this." And they went, "No, you don't understand. Nirvana did this and it was a huge hit with radio." And Maynard goes, "Do you know what that song's about? It's about getting fucked in the ass as a little kid." They never sent the shirts out.
KEENAN The tragic part of that is they didn't get the joke they had accidentally made. They're just that stupid. We had to say, "This is funny. I don't think you know it's funny, but it's funny and, no, we can't do that." But that song was a really tough one for me. There's not many things I regret having done, but doing those lyrics is one of them.
JONES We did a video [with the late animator Fred Stuhr] for "Prison Sex," and while we were working on it at three in the morning, the 1994 Northridge earthquake hit Los Angeles. We were on the second floor when it hit, and before I even knew it, Fred runs to the door and stands in the doorway because that's what you're supposed to do in an earthquake. But the other five of us who were there just ran out and plowed over him and left him lying on the ground. We jumped over the stairs and onto the next building, which was just one floor tall. I was scared shitless, because I knew that building would come down. It was, like, the worst thing that's ever happened to me and the best thing. When I looked out, I could see downtown Hollywood and all the transformers were blowing. It looked like the city was being bombed. It was just so beautiful. And then I realized in my panic I had left my girlfriend sleeping in the other building. So I ran back and started shouting her name, and just as I was calling for her, the quake stopped and I heard her. She couldn't climb down from where she was because the stairs had fallen and part of the building right next to us fell over, but she was OK.
KEENAN I think some of the growing pains really started to set in when we were on the road for Undertow, where you're starting to figure each other out and figure out what the nuances are, and the hangups, and the emotional and mental obstacles. We started to really see that the business is a tough one to fucking navigate and get away from. I think we went from zero to jaded in under 30 seconds. The honeymoon was definitely over.